With Friends Like These: Phony Egalitarianism and the 21st Century Progressive Heterosexual Male

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By Scott Ross

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In April 2018, posts from an old, deleted blog of Joy A. Reid’s surfaced, embarrassing the MSNBC host (who just last December was forced to apologize for previous bigoted, anti-gay comments) anew. Those posts, from 2007, unearthed by Jamie Maz and re-posted on Twitter, concerned John McCain’s potential Vice-Presidential pick, Charlie Crist. In them Reid continually referred to the former Florida governor as “Miss Charlie,” and indulged in tired “faggot” stereotypes meant to impugn his masculinity — a tactic both impossibly passé and, curiously, still much in evidence, usually among what is laughingly referred to as the religious right. Since Reid presents herself as a liberal (she used to call herself progressive, and even plumped for Bernie Sanders, until he had the sexist effrontery to exercise his rights as an American citizen and run for President against The Chosen One) these remarkably recherché accusations of closeted homosexuality against Crist were more than humiliating to her; they were, potentially, ruinous to her now-lucrative career as a news actress. (Not ruinous enough, however; her self-contradictory “apology”… for remarks she claims she never made… appears to have been enough to save her. For now.)

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Among the many ugly and appallingly insensitive remarks Reid made in these posts — which Reid, bizarrely, claims must have been written by others who somehow managed to “hack” a defunct and deleted blog site in order to distress her and which the Wayback Machine has verified were not — were, as Glenn Greenwald writes in The Intercept https://theintercept.com/2018/04/24/msnbcs-joy-reid-claims-her-website-was-hacked-and-bigoted-anti-lgbt-content-added-a-bizarre-story-liberal-outlets-ignore/, items “promoting the ugliest and most destructive stereotype of gay men as pedophile predators by suggesting that anti-gay attitudes are based in ‘concerns that adult gay men tend to be attracted to very young, post-pubescent types, bringing them “into the lifestyle” in a way that many people consider to be immoral’ and that ‘gay rights groups seek to organize very young, impressionable teens who may have an inclination that they are gay.’”

In a response as predictable as it was nauseating, Reid made the utterly insupportable (and, as it turns out, wholly unsupported) claim that “an unknown, external party accessed and manipulated material from my now-defunct blog… to include offensive and hateful references that are fabricated and run counter to my personal beliefs and ideology. I began working with a cyber-security expert who first identified the unauthorized activity, and we notified federal law enforcement officials of the breach. The manipulated material seems to be part of an effort to taint my character with false information by distorting a blog that ended a decade ago. Now that the site has been compromised I can state unequivocally that it does not represent the original entries.” The Wayback Machine, as noted above, un-categorically denies this spurious and self-serving assertion. http://blog.archive.org/2018/04/24/addressing-recent-claims-of-manipulated-blog-posts-in-the-wayback-machine/

Moving on from this discredited claim, Reid then said of these posts “being attributed to me” that she “genuinely [does] not believe I wrote those hateful things.” She then went on, bizarrely, to further damn herself as a lifelong homophobic dogmatist, recalling that some of her “closest friends” (shades, to use a deliberately pointed word, of “some of my best friends are Negros”…) kept secrets “because they didn’t know what [she] would say, or if we would still be friends, or whether [she] would look at them differently.” Apparently, their secretiveness was wholly justified.

Setting aside the inevitable question of just how “close” a friend must be who feels he or she cannot trust you enough to be open, especially concerning his or her sexuality, Reid’s attempt to justify her bigotry by asserting that, when she wrote these posts “a decade ago […] the country was in a very different place” were patently ridiculous. She thinks 2007 was “a very different place”? Try 1977, when I came out. Or 1987, when gay men were dying in their thousands, the President said and did nothing and the New York Times still refused to name their nearest survivors as anything but “longtime companions.” That country was “a very different place.” But a mere ten years ago?

All these types mean — and you will see many more examples of this historically ignorant thinking in the commentary of the young men I cite below — when they claim the country is not now what it was then is that, in 2007, there was no same-sex marriage. That is the sum total of their knowledge of the long fight for rights among gay Americans, a struggle which did not begin at Stonewall, but for which that watershed June 1969 event serves nicely as a time from which to measure modern progress.

And if I seem, once again, to be pillorying Millennials exclusively here, as I did in my previous post concerning the current unthinking misuse of language, it is merely because the more interesting of the current crop of progressive YouTube commentators are, by and large, of that demographic. Reid, even at her most absurd, at least opines that she hopes “whoever corrupted the site recognizes the pain they have caused, not just to me, but to my family and communities that I care deeply about: LGBTQ, immigrants, people of color and other marginalized groups.” This at least puts her one up on the majority of young, heterosexual male progressive commentators, who, take as a whole, never give a thought to any gay person’s feelings. For them, the latest edition of The Reidcapades represents for them only one thing: An opportunity to gleefully point up her hypocrisy.

 

Kyle Kulinski, on his 30 April “Secular Talk” video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HURRxvspz9A points out that Reid also Tweeted some of those old comments she now pretends she didn’t write (“I couldn’t imagine where they’d come from, or whose voice that was.”) As a grammatical side-note to this piece I will point out that, should he ever see his remarks in transcript, Kulsinki’s millennial overuse of the empty filler word “like” ought to shame him into, if not silence, at least recourse to a professional speech instructor. I doubt it will. Nothing else appears to shame the man. (Although he certainly knows that MS-NBC is “shameless.”)

Kulinski remarks, “I give less than no fucks about what she said back then… akin to, like, me and friends of mine, who, when you saw something you didn’t like, in, like, high school, your reaction was, like, ‘Gay.’ Now, as South Park brilliantly points out, that doesn’t mean that, like, when somebody like me was saying that, I was saying, ‘Hey, being a homosexual is inferior, and wrong, compared to heterosexual.’ No, it’s something that developed over time, that become de-coupled with being hateful…” [Emphasis mine.] Since I have not seen the South Park episode in question, I cannot say with certainty what the intentions of Messers Stone and Parker were. However, given my past exposure to the series, I cannot believe those two would go out of their way to create an episode whose point is that it’s OK to say, “That’s so gay.”

“But,” Kulinski continues, digging his own grave with a fervor that recalls Joy Reid at her least self-aware, “that doesn’t mean that I haven’t at times, in jest, said, ‘Gay,’ or at times you would say to your friend, ‘Faggot’ — if you want to have an impact and hit him, ‘Faggot.’ Would I do that now? Probably not [emphasis mine]. But I would vehemently deny that when I said those things that was me being anti-gay, because it’s simply not. You can say those things and be, y’know, not politically correct but at the same time you’re not saying what people insist you’re saying…”

“Probably not.” Which I take to mean, “I might.” With the smug, tacit assurance that we would all know, he, like, didn’t mean it.

“I’m in favor of gay marriage,” Kulinski foes on. “I’ve always fought for gay rights, but at the same time I also don’t bite my tongue…” [Emphasis mine.] In case you miss the point, the enlightened Mr. Kulinski is saying, “Don’t tell me I can’t say ‘faggot’ when I want to.”

With friends like these…

And I for one would like to see his battle-wounds for his gay rights “fight.” I’ve got 40 years’ worth of them, Kyle. All interior, I should add… so far. No one “fights for gay rights” only to claim for himself the right to say “faggot” when he chooses. No one but a hypocrite. That Reid is one as well does not let Kulinski off the hook he baited himself, and on whose barb he so eloquently flounders.

It isn’t, you see, what Reid said that matters to the likes of Kulinski, only that she denies saying it. The lie is all that signifies. He actually seems to believe, despite the explicit evidence before him, that, because Reid says she’s now an ally, she is, ipso facto, no longer anti-gay. This self-ordained liberal-humanist-progressive champion and pundit (or, to use the term so often bandied about by the likes of Kulinski, “pundint”) is incapable, in his indifference to the hatefulness of what Reid wrote, to sense the most obvious and salient about her: The woman says anything… if she thinks it will help her earn a paycheck. She was pro-Sanders, before he ran against The Queen; demonized him after. Even little Kyle admits she is “a liar.” Yet “she’s on the right side of those issues now.”

For Kulinski, the problem isn’t the ugly, hurtful, appallingly insensitive slurs she hurled. No. “The problem is that she’s a goddamn liar.”

 

Meanwhile, the usually upright Jordan Chariton reveals (also on 30 April) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KKWerJ0aTyo that he, like Kulinski, cannot see the hideously tangled forest for the more obviously stunted trees… nor his own homophobia, even as he speaks it.

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“Do I wish anything [sic] ill will towards [sic]” Reid, he asks? “Absolutely not, I’m not that kind of person.” Chariton is also, again like Kulinski, not the kind of person who is in any way comfortable with faggots. For Chariton, “If Joy Reid wrote nasty things about homosexuals, over a decade ago, I would think it’s a bad thing…” Well, there’s a ringing endorsement against hate-speech.

And again that mantra, “over a decade ago.” A decade ago was still well into the 21st century, Jordan. But such progressives as Chariton don’t think they, or liberals generally, should have (to use their phrase) “evolved” on gay issues, I would suppose, before 2015, the year in which the Supreme Court found for the plaintiff in Obergefell V. Hodges. This seems, on evidence, to be a problem of perspective for many Millennials; what they themselves did not live through, they know little to nothing about. They’ve heard of AIDS, one supposes, but do not seem to understand its monstrous impact upon one especially vulnerable community, nor do they object when a hypocritical shill like Hillary Rodham Clinton, sensing a means of inserting herself into an obituary, praises Nancy and Ronald Reagan for “helping to start a dialogue” on a plague whose acronym neither would utter publicly and whose toll among gay men was so pronounced, and so devastating, that, after 1996 the National Mall could no longer host the AIDS Quilt as it was then constituted because its vastness was simply beyond the means of exhibiting in one place.

Further, “homosexuals” is a word which, rather curiously, this progressive uses repeatedly, even as he rushes to assure us he “never had a problem with” his — presumably countless — gay friends. Even when Chariton does utter the word “gay,” he invariably stumbles over it, saying, “homo” first before correcting himself.

This, ladies and gentleman, is what is called, in poker and bunco circles, a tell.

“Joy Reid’s said a lot of bad stuff,” Chariton bravely observes. “And, by the way, I’ve probably written things ten years ago that I’m not proud of. We probably all have.” Speak for yourself, Chariton. I have written nothing about others in the last decade which it shames me to recall, or that was offensive to any racial, ethnic or even religious group (no mean feat for an atheist who is pretty much fed up to the teeth with the God-boys). Nor to any sexual or physiological (so-called) “minority” within the wider culture. Why? Because, aside from not wishing to offend, and being aware that it is not kind to use language that is insensitive to others, I choose my words with care. Do you, Jordan?

“Let’s not be hypocrites here,” Chariton concludes. “We can’t hold anyone to a perfect standard… We’ve all written things we’re not proud of.” I hear in this echo of liberal Democrats and their “purity tests.” So expecting an alleged liberal to not write a string to deeply offensive remarks is holding her to a “perfect standard,” Chariton? When, in your opinion, does someone like Reid actually step over the line into hatefulness and bigotry? When she murders someone?

This story, Chariton claims, is not about someone “evolving, or not evolving.” Again, for him, as for Kulinski, it is only the lie Reid tells that matters, not what she is lying about.

 

Even those young progressive men with nearly impeccable track records stumble over this one. David Doel, on his 25 April “Rational National” video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4fN0HkeOpo, admits, of the initial December 2017 story anent the catty Crist pieces Reid wrote on her old blog, “I didn’t cover it — because I didn’t think it was a big deal.” I submit that Doel might have thought it “a big deal” if he was gay… or genuinely cared about how gay men and Lesbians are vilified. He, no doubt, would protest that he does care, but his words belie his supposed progressive humanism.

David DoelDoel then quotes one of Reid’s more nauseating statements, to wit: “By screaming [as in “screaming queen,” one presumes?] so loudly about making gay marriage a kind of litmus test for true progressives and humanity, they have embraced a fight that only a small sliver of the population can relate to, and put their credibility on the line by painting Barack Obama as an enemy, at a time when most Americans consider him their only hope.” A clear progression backwards, from todays’ phony “Resistance” to yesterday’s “Help us, Obama-Wan, you’re our only hope.” One begins to forgive Sarah Palin her “hopey-changey” crack. To Doel, “Back then, it was more normal to think this way.” And by “back then,” remember, we are referring to the late-2000s!

Doel fares better when he plays a staggeringly tone-deaf clip from — of all people — Jon Stewart regarding Dennis Kucinich’s genuinely progressive views on gay and transgendered rights, and whether he would nominate a gay man, Lesbian or transgendered person to the Supreme Court. (He would.) Stewart’s response? “All rise for the Honorable Justice Chick with Dick.” Doel correctly praises Kucinich (and other leaders, like Sanders, who has, from the early 1970s, always been an ally) for being on “the right side of history,” even as they were being made fun of for being so… and not merely by conservatives. As he notes, we might have expected that crude joke from the likes of Dennis Miller. But from Jon Stewart? And so, when Doel refers to 2004 as “back then,” I begin to comprehend: For a 20-something Millennial, ten years is nearly half his lifetime. It’s an unfathomable length of time, the way 25 years was to me when I was a child.

Doel does, correctly, hoist Joy Reid with her own petard when he quotes one of Reid’s own Tweets, in which she smirked at a Trump nominee, “Nobody tell her about The Wayback Machine.” Doel adds, “She should have taken her own advice.” However, to again quote his own words, he did not cover the December 2017 story because he “thought it was a non-story… The issue here is that she is lying.”

At the risk of beating a horse not only dead but on its way to the dog-food cannery, Doel might care if he was gay. But he ought to care anyway.

On his subsequent 30 April video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pUugKeIqsiY, Doel doubles down on his blind heterosexist obsession. “My issue with Joy,” he says, “isn’t that she once held these backwards views on the LGBT community, because a lot of people did.” Once again, a young man equates 2007 with ancient history. And even if, as he avers, “a lot of people” held such retrogressive views that decade long, long ago, does he also believe that such a mass should be excused for having them? I would submit that, if the targets of Reid’s remarks had been any group other than gay men and Lesbians, Doel would, quite properly, pillory them for their short-sighted bigotry. No, to Doel, the problem is not Reid’s horrendous — and hideously rendered — prejudices. The problem is only that “she didn’t own it to begin with.”

On this follow-up video, Doel is joined by someone unseen named Mary (or “@MarysR00m, Artist”) who, in extempore, makes Kyle Kulinski sound like a Rhodes Scholar and whose weird “co-hosting” is at best a puzzlement. “Speaking of the gay community, Mary opines: “Like, they know the way things used to be. Like, they are understanding.” (I would quote Mary in greater detail but, like, I just, like, can’t because, like, I could, y’know, like, vomit?) No, Mary, we are not “understanding.” We are fed up. We’ve heard bigots of Reid’s like all of our lives. We no longer pat them on the head, or pity them, or “forgive” their loud-mouthed impugning of us… the smug Rachel Maddow, who gushed about her MSNBC coeval’s splendid honesty, notwithstanding. And while I am aware that by harping on this at such length I am inviting comparisons to a broken record (ask your grandfather) if 2007 is your yardstick for measuring “the way things used to be,” I respectfully suggest you open your mind a little further and try to comprehend that a decade ago is not concomitant with the Punic Wars.

By the end of this mind-numbing conversation, Doel returns to his well-warmed theme: Reid “forgets the homophobic views she held in the late 2000s.” [Emphasis mine.] “We know she’s lying. That’s the problem here.”

“The problem here,” it seems to me, is a young heterosexual male being incapable of empathy.

 

Relief of a kind comes with Thomas’s 25 April video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=57Gc-2gkNio, but only of a kind; such respite is mitigated by the more than occasional cringe once experiences while listening.

Thomas hqdefaultThe first such wince comes early on, when Thomas observes that what Reid wrote was “kind of homophobic” and that she herself was, “somewhat homophobic.” “Kind of,” Jamarl? “Somewhat”? The way Jesse Helms was “kind of” a racist? The way Ezra Pound was “somewhat” anti-Semitic? Thomas does, however, correctly observe that, “If a right-winger said [what Reid did], there would be outrage.” Yet he reminds us that he finds “some of this funny,” reserving his disgust, as with his contemporaries among the YouTube commentator class, for the hypocrisy of Reid and the identity-driven DNC.

Later he, quite properly, leaps with glee on Reid’s “I’m not homophobic; I have gay friends” remark, correctly linking it to the old “I’m not racist, I have black friends…” ploy as a prime example of paralogical political thinking.

Thomas again imagines a Reid apology in which she admits to writing such ugliness “in the past, when it was somewhat more socially acceptable to say such things.” “In the past,” in this case, as I have pointed out repeatedly, if not at this point a bit obsessively, means, a mere decade ago. We are not, as is often the case with historically narrow viewpoints, referring to something said, or written, in the 1800s, or even the mid-1900s. Thomas is, like Kulinski, Chariton, and Doel, apparently incapable of understanding that 2007 is not The Dark Ages. America by that point already had Stonewall, Anita Bryant, the murder of Harvey Milk, the acquittal of his killer, Ronald Reagan, the AIDS pandemic, Jerry Falwell, Jesse Helms, The NEA Four, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue,” Fred Phelps and “God Hates Fags,” the murder of Matthew Shepherd, Brokeback Mountain, Milk, and the very public coming-out of Ellen DeGeneres and Neil Patrick Harris (among others) under its collective belt before the turn of the century. 2007 is a mere wisp across the roiling surface of modern time. It is as yesterday.

To his credit, Thomas reminds his viewers that Reid already admitted, in December of 2017, that Reid had written such things. Yet he refers to the Wayback Machine refutation of Reid’s spurious claims, but merely as a preface to the inevitable them: Again, it is not the words she wrote, but her denial of them now that is the crux.

Thomas does, however, see through Reid’s phony righteousness. “I am more inclined to believe,” he notes, “that this is just the way she is, and just the way she was.” That at least is a step ahead of the simpering benefits of the doubt Chariton and others extend to her. Thomas further asserts that Reid’s perspective is merely one of party, and “problematic” for her because she is a mouthpiece of the Democrats, whose members “hug identity because they don’t want to deal with other issues… the economic realities of those identities.”

Yet, on his subsequent 28 April video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YSyU19iWDN4, Thomas again finds Reid’s persistent speculation, bordering on obsession, with, and bitchy “jokes” about, Charlie Crist’s sexuality “funny but fucked-up.” While Thomas is a humanist, his susceptibility to sneering “jokes” about another man’s sexuality limit that humanism to a purely heterosexual — if not, indeed, heterosexist — perspective. If he had spent any time in the skin of a gay male bombarded from childhood with ugly, emasculating japes, or a Lesbian (or even a somewhat androgynous or “butch” looking straight female) subjected to the correspondingly gendered jeers, I doubt he would find anything remotely amusing about such junior high bullying. As with Kulinski, Chariton and Doel, Thomas exhibits in this area an alarming lack of empathy, something one would think was de rigeur emotional equipment for anyone calling himself a humanist or a progressive.

Thomas further asserts that Reid could say, “It was acceptable, during that time, to say bad things about gays,” and that she merely took advantage of that. I don’t wish to belabor this, or to pillory Thomas at length, because he is not only far more relaxed and open-minded than most of his “progressive” compatriots on gay issues generally, and, specific to Reid, he alone at least states that it is not, as Reid asserted in 2009, “intrinsic” for heterosexuals to believe that “homosexual sex is… well… gross” but, like racism, “societally-driven.” He also points out that the worst of Reid’s commentaries during this time lay in her assertion that gay men are intrinsically pedophiles and predators seeking out “impressionable teens.” (I’ll let pass for the moment the fact that most people in the west have no notion that there is a vast difference between a pedophile and an ephebophile, as witness the ubiquitous assertion that Judge Roy Moore, prone to hitting on 17-year old girls, is a “pedophile.”) Still, Reid’s “Miss Charlie” epithet for Crist is “funny” to him. And again, it wouldn’t be, if he was gay… or even empathetic enough to place himself in a gay man’s shoes. Still, he maintains that Reid’s “pedophile” comment was “ghastly”; Kyle Kulinski never mentioned her use of such wretched stereotypes, nor did Jordan Chariton, or even David Doel. Only Glenn Greenwald — naturally suspect because he is gay — expressed outrage about that.

Yet while Thomas is entirely correct in his observation that Obama “evolved” on same-sex marriage in 2012 the minute the polls ran in its favor, he lets Reid’s viewers off the hook by asserting of Reid that “if this is your disposition, and if people watch you knowing this is your disposition,” doing so presumes she isn’t lying to them.

But why would we assume this? Dissembling is what a hack does.

 

Cenk Uygar (who, of course, is not a Millennial) in his 5 Dec. 2017 video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e81J44QlKA4 defends Reid’s outing of anti-gay, Republican politicians. But her “outing” of Crist — always presuming he is homosexual, which he still denies — is one thing; feminizing him and employing the rankest queer stereotypes in order to do so, is quite another. In common with so many of his compatriots in the progressive movement, Uygar too lacks not merely an empathic perspective on homosexuality but betrays as well a rather stunning inability to perceive what is directly in front of him. But then, what can one expect from a man who backed Sanders in the primaries only to succumb to Trump Terror in the general, peddling fear and exhorting us all to vote for the more evil of the two lessers in that race, a woman he had to know was not one whit less reactionary than her opponent.

The most Uygar can muster, when quoting Reid’s disingenuous claim that “At no time have I intentionally sought to demean or harm” is to chide her as “Over-zealous in prosecuting the case against Charlie Crist.” I hear now, in my mind’s audio theatre, Robert Klein, anatomizing Watergate and citing the ubiquitous use of the term over-zealous: “Or O-Z, as we call it.”

Uygar of course is incapable of any such appreciation of irony.

 

Alas, even the otherwise estimable Gordon Dimmack, in his 25 April video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rI6VTjJXoac reminds his viewers that Reid’s blog posts, written “a decade ago… could be considered [emphasis mine] homophobic.” I cannot determine Dimmack’s age, but he appears to be in his 20s and thus a Millennial. In any case, this ordinarily keenly perceptive young man simply cannot see Reid’s utterly despicable snark for what it was. I find this as astonishing in its way as I did the local NPR news director’s frequent assertions on his broadcasts throughout the spring of 2017 that the North Carolina General Assembly’s notorious House Bill 2 contained provisions “some say are discriminatory” against transgendered citizens when the bill’s sole purpose was legalized discrimination.

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Dimmack and I agree, however, when he avers that he is only surprised Reid didn’t claim the Russians hacked her old account; had The Wayback Machine not refuted her claims, I suspect she’d have gotten around to it in due course. And he does point out that Reid had already admitted writing previously cited statements and apologizing for having done so. Further, he absolutely nails her hypocrisy when he notes that Reid has not made similar comments about Crist since he switched from the Republican to the Democratic Party. He also cites her queer-baiting of celebrities such as Anderson Cooper and Tom Cruise in a manner that points up how obsessed she is, or was, with homosexuality, and correctly notes that alleged lefty “social warriors” like Reid only ever criticize those they don’t personally like… or who are in the “wrong” political party.

 

Nor does An0maly, in his 28 April video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_F1CxY8oOoo, reassure.

While this weirdly iconoclastic Millennial performer quite properly cites Reid as “delusional” and exhibiting a “complete lack of self-awareness,” he can only offer a limp “I guess her blog posts were homophobic.” As with Kulinski, An0maly claims that he “support[s] the LGBT community,” and — also like Kulinski — admits that he made similar ugly remarks when he was a “young and dumb” 18. Reid, however, was not a teenager when she wrote those posts. She was an established figure at the Miami Herald, a self-proclaimed political expert, and knew damn well what she was doing: Appealing to what she perceived as the (nascent or explicit) bigotry of her readers.

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He does, however, quite properly assert that Reid’s own citing of a remark she made in college to a gay male friend directly contradicts her “I can’t believe those words were written by me” justifications, and that her apology is negated by her denying she penned the very words she did in fact write. “They have no shame,” he bemoans, “they have no accountability.” He further calls out what he correctly deems the “pandering and phoniness” of the pussy-hat apologists as “delusional activism.”

 

On the YouTube Channel Pop Trigger’s 1 May video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UT5gyAkJMmo meanwhile, the young (male) host Jason notes that Reid “had some blog posts from pretty much a decade ago that seemed kind of [emphasis mine] homophobic.” Once again we are confronted with a male Millennial “progressive” who cannot perceive the evidence of his own eyes. No one in his or her right mind, giving Reid’s old posts even the most cursory of glances, could fail to see the militant viciousness of her remarks. “Kind of” homophobic? What would make them decidedly so? Using the word “faggot”?

Concerning an item labeled, on Reid’s original blog, “Harriet Meyers and the Lesbian Hair Check,” Grace Baldridge one of Jason’s female co-hosts, chimes in, “Okay, that’s fair.” The two then share a giggle. Grace, who is Lesbian, also thinks that “gay” as an epithet was acceptable, and doesn’t wish “to tear anyone down now” for their homophobic statements in the past. Again, we are talking about statements written a mere decade ago. I won’t go so far as to label this young woman a self-hating Lesbian, but Jesus, Mary and Joseph! What does it take to get these kids to call a bigot a bigot? Actual blood on her hands?

 

Habibi maxresdefaultIt is with great relief, then, that we turn at last to Sahil Habibi, The Progressive Voice. On his video of 26 April https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d8T2bQYimOI he alone — significantly, the youngest-looking at least of all the Millennial males commentators cited here — calls Reid’s posts “homophobic” with no qualifier, ridiculing Reid’s claims of having been “hacked” in addition to her “disgusting homophobic past.”

Why is this young man seemingly alone in his ability to perceive the bleeding obvious?
I have always preferred the rank, explicit sexual bigotry of the right to the snickering public “acceptance” of parlor liberals like Joy Reid; at least we know who our enemies are. With Democrats — Sanders, Kucinich, Nina Turner and a select small group excepted — we never know.

Neither, it seems, do we really know about young “progressives.”

 

Text Copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

Articles concerning Joy A. Reid and which contain more of her posts from her defunct blog The Reid Report:

https://www.mediaite.com/online/exclusive-joy-reid-claims-newly-discovered-homophobic-posts-from-her-blog-were-fabricated/

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/24/business/media/joy-reid-homophobic-blog-posts.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/erik-wemple/wp/2018/04/25/msnbcs-position-on-joy-reid-isnt-cutting-it/

https://theintercept.com/2018/04/24/msnbcs-joy-reid-claims-her-website-was-hacked-and-bigoted-anti-lgbt-content-added-a-bizarre-story-liberal-outlets-ignore/

https://twitter.com/Jamie_Maz/status/986674364979523597

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The Leaping Sort-Of

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By Scott Ross

Sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s, the critic John Simon wrote a piece decrying the increasing incidence in American speech of what he called “the Creeping ‘You-Know’.” That it is back, and with a vengeance, can be affirmed to one’s sorrow if one spends any amount of time near, or at least in earshot of, Millennials. I suspect generalities… er, generally… but it seems, sadly, to be a truism that those under 30 sprinkle enough “you know”s into their conversation, casual and formal, to send the heartiest of seasoned grammarians into cardiac arrest. Where this lazy reliance on conversative filler — for that is what all that “you know”s represent — came from, or why it lay dormant for a generation or two before resurfacing to re-pollute the sea of communication I do not know.

Those of us who came of age in the 1970s have, as a generation, more than our share of faults, among them a deplorable social and political complacency that, at its worst, not only ushered in the era of Reagan but buoyed up the appalling ignorance with which his putatively liberal Democrat successors have fed the ravening beast of uncompromising neoliberalism which, thanks to the Clintons and Mr. Obama, have helped render America’s middle class poor, its poor destitute, and its rich wealthier than at any time since what Mark Twain with exquisite irony called The Gilded Age. And while the rape of the language runs a poor second to these excesses, I do not recall the brightest of us groping so aggressively, and helplessly, when putting our thoughts into words.

Among the British — and, I must admit with sorrow, increasingly here — the Creeping You-Know has been superseded by The Leaping Sort-Of. In a recent interview on the Real News network — one of the very few genuinely reliable sources currently operating in this our post-Telecommunications Act of 1996 world of corporate news and its attendant vilification, when not outright crushing, of such actual journalism as still exists — the redoubtable Aaron Maté engaged in colloquy with the Oxford historian Eskandar Sadeghi concerning the house of mirrors belligerence of the Trump Administration toward Iran. As if the clips Maté includes in his twin segments of Mike Pompeo’s hilarious deflection (Iran, not the United States, is “the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism”) and the withering specter of an American Secretary of State threatening another sovereign nation like a schoolyard bully drunk on confiscated Juicy-Juice were not risible enough, Sadeghi’s commentary is littered with enough meaningless “sort of”s to offer succor to those among us, if such there be, who habitually complain that the educated speak too clearly for comprehension.

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The Leaping Sort-Of (along with its twin, The Pouncing Kind-Of) as it is currently constituted is a beast almost beyond comprehension. The people interviewed on television and video, and indeed those conducting the interviews, are supposed to be (even if they rarely are) aside from knowledgeable, intelligent and articulate — or at least as articulate as their viewers. While Maté is unusually poised and articulate, as indeed are a number of less celebrated (and compensated) young voices on the progressive left such as the British Gordon Dimmack and the Canadian David Doel — his guest is, seemingly, incapable of making a simple declarative statement without muddying the linguistic waters by adding “sort of” to every noun or verb he utters. Sadeghi, in common with so many under the sway of The Leaping Sort-Of, has absolutely no awareness that he habitually undercuts his own otherwise cogent political analysis by his adamant refusal to come down conclusively on any point. There are, indeed, segments of his conversation with Maté in which he, dizzyingly, clusters as many as a half-dozen “sort of”s into a single sentence.

I don’t mean to pillory Sadeghi exclusively; he just happens to be the last victim of The Leaping Sort-Of I heard today. But the “selective part of an Arabic document” (he means of course selected; it was he who excerpted it who was selective) is not made any more concrete in its citation by being a “sort of selective part,” especially when it is used to “sort of imply that Iran had a long-established relationship with Al-Qaeda.” No. It either was a part of a document or it was not. It was either used to draw that inference or it wasn’t. There is no limbo area here.

Uttering “sort of” in this way, and doing so with such stuttering habitualness, does not bespeak nuance or care. It suggests that you are somehow terrified of making a simple declarative statement. And one is left to wonder why. Especially since very few of these types would ever write or publish a sentence as slovenly or ill-considered as the inconclusive rubbish they speak. Perhaps they have simply never spent a moment listening to themselves, or reflecting on how they sound to others.

And if they haven’t, then why the hell should we listen to them?

 

Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

It doesn’t want people: “The Changeling” (1980)

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By Scott Ross

“That house is not fit to live in. No one’s been able to live in it. It doesn’t want people.”

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Thanks to the recommendation of a very good friend, I finally got to this elegant exercise in horror, a movie I somehow managed to miss during its original release. Odd, in that, at that time, I went to damn near any movie that either starred, as The Changeling (1980) does, a favorite actor, or that held any sort of cinematic promise. Directed, with an uncanny eye for beauty, by the gifted Peter Madek, the man responsible for two superb early 1970s adaptations of exceptional British plays (The Ruling Class and One Day in the Death of Joe Egg) and based, so the story goes, on phenomena the credited story writer Russell Hunter encountered in Colorado, this is an exceptional, and remarkably stylish, ghost story. Further, and most unusually, it’s a ghost story with a patina of sadness that, while subtly limned, is at times nearly unbearable.

The Changeling is far from a perfect work. Its characterizations are thin and rely largely on the star-power of George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere and Melvyn Douglas to bring fulsomeness to them. And there are niggling bits of little interior illogic; unless the recently widowed, Romantic-style composer Scott portrays is as wealthy as Leonard Bernstein, it’s a bit of a stretch to accept his inhabiting the massive Victorian Seattle mansion he rents from the local Historical Society, whatever the discount.

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George C. Scott has an unnerving encounter. No violence here, or even the threat of it, yet this is one of the most unsettling scenes in the movie.

Still, what is remarkable about the movie, aside from its intelligent refusal to overplay its creepy hand, are its emotional plangency and the rich, saturated photography of John Coquillon. Medak and the screenwriters William Gray and Diana Maddox concoct a horror movie as if in reaction to every bad, or at least obvious, spook-picture ever made. In this the picture resembles the 1944 The Uninvited — also about a composer, and in which Victor Young introduced the theme that became known as “Stella by Starlight.” The psychic disturbances Scott encounters are unnerving, but, until the climax, more unsettling than apocalyptic. The Changeling, unlike so many high-concept horror movies that both preceded and followed it, isn’t interested in shocking you every 20 minutes. And it’s that very evenness of tone and eschewing of the obvious that make the various supernatural visitations in the house so quietly unnerving; Medak and his collaborators make the sight of a child’s ball bouncing down a staircase and settling in a hallway seem more unsettling than a full two hours of non-stop, ghoulishly hysterical special effects.

Melvyn Douglas weighing the facts of his life.

Melvyn Douglas weighing the facts of his life.

I wish Jean Marsh had more than a single scene, and I could easily have done with more of the great Melvyn Douglas, whose year 1980 certainly was (he won the Academy Award® that spring for his beautiful performance in Being There) and Madeline Sherwood, who has all-too-brief a role as Van Devere’s practical mother. There is, however, a séance sequence that is unique in my experience of horror film, made compelling by a notably intense illustration of automatic writing, something I don’t recall ever having seen in a movie before. More importantly, the sense of grief that underlies The Changeling, in both the recent, and in the distant, past, gives The Changeling a sense of gravitas that makes its ultimate revelations deeply moving.

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Perhaps the most puzzling thing about the film is not its central mystery, but an exterior one: Its “R” rating. Only a few, mild, obscenities are uttered; there’s no sex, real or implied; and even the crucial sequence of little Joseph in the bath is staged, shot and edited discreetly, as such things must be to keep the country sane. (In Europe, unlike America, they admit, and perhaps even accept, that a child has genitals.) While the climax does include some ghostly violence, it’s hardly gratuitous, nor is it especially grisly. If keeping the impressionable kiddies away was the idea, there’s a hell of lot more for a parent to object to in any number of supposedly “child-friendly” features that achieved the coveted “PG,” so precious to movie studios, then and now.

But then, no one has ever accused the MPAA of sanity.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

 

A Few Second Thoughts on The Changeling, May 2018

Thanks to the Carolina Theatre in Durham scheduling the new Canadian restoration of The Changeling as a regular feature (as opposed to a special screening of the original) I was able to revisit the picture, four years after being introduced it — and, pleasurably, on a big screen. The re-viewing has prompted me to a new evaluation, inspired in part by the lively discussion my best friend and I had afterward. Happily, it seems an even richer and more subtle picture now, although the supposed 4K restoration has its problems. The opening scenes carry heavy grain, and the sound was in some ways rather poor, which may be inherent to the movie itself, produced somewhat cheaply and without a stereo sound mix. (We get spoiled, don’t we, by THX? Even those of us who, like myself, seldom go to a new movie.) Still, I seldom encounter a problem at screenings of much older movies, so I must assume the occasional problems, especially with Trish Van Devere’s dialogue, were there in 1980. Perhaps they resist cleaning up?

That said, The Changeling holds up remarkably well to a second viewing, the inevitable loss of tension grounded in a foreknowledge of its events notwithstanding. Indeed, the picture seems even more subtle and, in its avoidance of audience-pleasing cliché, even more quietly daring.

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I had forgotten, while writing up my initial impressions in 2014 immediately after seeing it, of the movie’s splendid use of sound, specifically the periodic pounding noises George C. Scott encounters in the old mansion. If they owe a little something to The Haunting, they’re no less remarkably carried off, providing a tantalizing early mystery for Scott’s John Russell, one that leads him to deeper exploration of the various paranormal phenomenon in the house — and, ultimately, to a heartbreaking revelation, especially for a man who has had his own child violently taken from him, however accidental the means. This is what I meant, above, by the almost unbearable sadness the picture encompasses, and about which I will say little, not wishing to spoil anyone else’s experience of it, except to note that I was struck, on this second viewing, by how logical the unseen presence’s heedless, demanding, hectoring of the Scott character is: The ghost is a child; he’s understandably angry. He wants what he wants, and he wants it now. This too has a pay-off, in the moment when the elderly Melvyn Douglas is confronted by Scott with his putative father’s crimes; his chin trembles as he faces Scott’s accusations, and, informed of the insupportable, bursts into pathetic weeping, like a hurt and resentful little boy, crying out at the suggestion that his parent was anything less than wonderful and perfect. Despite his octogenarian status, he is still a child as well

My friend wondered, during our impromptu post-mortem, what the Scott character gets out of the experience. I would say nothing… except an even deeper grief. That’s the special grace of a movie as idiosyncratic as this one. There is no facile, happy pay-off at the end, no sense (to use an idiotic hack-word) of “closure.” Although a certain balance has been redressed by the fade-out — and, if the appearance among the ruins of the little wheelchair and music box are to be taken at face value, even that is not entirely satisfactory to the victim — no one is any better off. Even the house has to die.

The thinness of the characterizations is still an issue, but a less nagging one at a second viewing, in part because the story is so beautifully and compellingly told, and in part as well due to how resourceful the actors are, particularly Scott. One may wonder, as my friend did, why Van Devere’s character’s mother is even there, since she has no real stake in the action, except perhaps that she provides an emotional anchor for her daughter. And my earlier preoccupation with the cost of renting such a looming pile was mitigated this time around by the talk of how impossible it’s been for the Seattle Historical Society to unload it onto a tenant. Too, my previous essay title was mis-chosen. The old harridan at the Society may believe the house “doesn’t want people,” but that’s a misinterpretation by someone at a remove, who has never lived in the place; it does want people, rather desperately as it turns out. It — or rather, the spirit of its restless inhabitant, wants the aide of people, but, being an angry manifestation, and very young, goes about asking for that succor in all the wrong ways. It takes someone attuned to loss to be, at first intrigued enough and, later, anguished enough, to see through the clumsiness of the attempt to the aching heart of what is needed.

In the past four years, I have become a great admirer of The Changeling’s score, especially important in a good ghost-story but also of great urgency in a story whose major character is himself a composer. There’s a complicated back-story to that musical soundtrack, even as the picture itself had a rather torturous route to the screen: Howard Blake composed the thematically important central lullaby, but (presumably through poor communication on the part of the producers) was replaced as composer by Ken Wannberg, whose compositions were then fleshed out by the Canadian Rick Wilkins, making for a complex set of music credits. The music-box theme, both sweet and achingly yearning, is one of two central motifs in the picture; the other is a remarkable atmospheric piece that encompasses both the Scott character and the essential — and deeply disturbing — mystery of the house itself.

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Peter Medak’s direction, particularly given the niggardly budget imposed upon him, is beautifully fluid and precise, yet with room for poetic metaphor. He repeatedly emphasizes the importance to the story of water yet never overplays this, as he also handles the vertiginous qualities of the grand staircase; the moment in which Scott and a compatriot are shown, from above, digging out a crucial well hidden by the floorboards of a contemporary house, is a perfectly rendered visual bookend. (My friend and I were equally struck by the way Scott, when the police have come to remove the bones of the dead hidden there, instantly lights up a cigarette — he smokes throughout the picture — in the woman’s home without asking permission, and no one says a word. Imagine such a scene in a movie made nearly 40 years after this one! No filmmaker today would conceive of such a thing, except to illustrate by it how disgusting, boorish and horrible the character doing such a thing was.) The séance sequence remains as riveting as ever, particularly when wedded to the way the Scott character realizes, later, that he too has succumbed to a crucial spell of automatic writing.

Speaking of subtlety: I wonder how many of the dolts who write literalist comments on imdb understand that the Douglas character isn’t really in the house at the end? The audience of 2018 expects, and demands, that everything be spelled out for it in the most obvious manner. No doubt the lazy-minded preview attendees and dread focus groups of today would also insist on a love/sex scene between the Scott and Van Devere characters. (And would you want to see George C. Scott in the nude?) It’s to the credit of Medak, and to the scenarists, William Gray and Diana Maddox, that they were not bound by such conventions, and that they, and the producers, were content to tell a small, perfectly delineated, spook story without recourse to mile-a-minute, chop-chop editing and ubiquitous special effects.

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While I’m still a perplexed by that “R” rating, perhaps it as my friend suggested: A reaction to the picture’s central act of violence. Although the murder sequence was filmed with great restraint, it’s still squirmingly difficult to watch, and the age of its victim may have been the deciding factor in the MPAA’s schoolmarmish rating. It’s the most appalling crime imaginable, not in the sense of gore (there is none) but in the parameters of its circumstances. The picture is not, as a recent, Bettinger Law-courting headline posited, “the scariest movie ever made.” No. Not even close. The Changeling is not a traditional blood-and-guts horror picture. Nor is it a screeching spook-fest. It is an unusually understated and richly textured ghost story, with grave emotional plangency at its core that never telegraphs its effects or insults the intelligence of its audience. And that one, horrific act, performed with mad, unfeeling, cold-blooded calculation, is — pardon, but there is no other word for it — haunting. Not in the standard way of such things, for there is nothing supernatural about it. It is, simply, the sort of thing whose unspeakable cruelty can haunt your memory long after you’ve shaken off the more casually outré blood-letting of many, much lesser, movies.

Additional text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

The long audition: Fosse, Me, and Sam Wasson’s “Fosse”

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By Scott Ross

“To be on the wire is life. The rest is waiting.” — Karl Walldenda, quoted in All That Jazz

(Warning: Memory ahead.)

Fosse has been a touchstone in my life for exactly four decades now. That conscious connection was forged on my 13th birthday, in 1974. The night before, my parents took us to see a dinner theatre production of Cabaret, a show I’d fallen in love with via the Original Cast Recording, which I’d borrowed from the Olivia Raney Library in downtown Raleigh (gone now, alas, as is that dinner theatre.) The next day, a Saturday, my best friend Michael and I went to the movie, brought back for some reason nearly a year after its big Oscar ® win. (The soundtrack LP was another of my birthday presents that year, my mother not quite understanding the difference between it and a cast album.)

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At the time, I was a sufficient musical theatre novice that I preferred the show to the movie; I missed the “book” songs the movie’s producer Cy Feuer, the director Bob Fosse and the scenarists Jay Presson Allen and Hugh Wheeler jettisoned from the score. I also missed the Lenya figure, and her Jewish suitor. (She’s there, but her role is significantly diminished, her dilemma assumed in the movie by the Marissa Berenson character.) I didn’t know, not having yet discovered Christopher Isherwood’s books, or the details of his life, how much more closely Cabaret as film dovetailed with Isherwood’s original, and with his own biography. But I loved the way the movie was put together; was amused by its nonchalant approach to sexuality; excited by the editing and by the choreography of the cabaret numbers; enthralled by Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli — and, although I didn’t yet comprehend why, by Michael York’s Isherwoodesque physiognomy.

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Michael York as Christopher Isherwood, more or less.

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Isherwood around the time of his days in Berlin.

I didn’t quite realize, not being fully conversant as yet with the possibilities of irony in staging musicals (and not having discovered Stephen Sondheim; that would come in a year or two) that what Fosse had made was not a traditional musical but a dramatic movie with musical numbers. Only later would I fully understand that by keeping the song-and-dance — save the ersatz Nazi anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” — within the confines of the Kit Kat Klub, the filmmaker was able to exploit his stars’ talents (and his own) while keeping the action grounded in the drastically crumbling reality of 1931 Berlin and to comment ironically (as had Harold Prince in his original concept for the stage show) but here in purely cinematic terms, on the story’s arc and the characters’ predicaments, erotic and otherwise. I would come to ruminate on this aspect of Fosse’s Cabaret in due course, as I realized who I was, how my feelings for Michael had altered, and that he had his own very personal reasons, not yet shared with me, for his amusement over the movie’s homosexual implications.

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Brian: Oh — screw Maximilian!
Sally: I do.
Brian (after a shocked pause, smiles): So do I.

These less personal and more thematic revelations came to a head later, after seeing the movie again, on television in September of 1975. That infamous broadcast contained one of the most bizarre acts of censorship I’ve ever encountered, even to this day. I fully expected the movie’s many uses of the word “screw” (“Fuck” in the European release) would be axed, or over-dubbed. What I was not prepared for was that ABC, terrified of the moment in Cabaret that made explicit that Sally Bowles (Minnelli) and her erstwhile beau Brian Roberts (York) have both been sexually involved with Helmut Griem’s erotically ecumenical Maximilian, would simply drop the audio in the middle of the scene. At first, I assumed this sudden silence to be a technical glitch, but when the sound was restored immediately after that funny/shocking dialogue (Brian: Oh — screw Maximilian! / Sally: I do. / Brian [after a shocked pause, smiling]: So do I.) I had the uneasy feeling that something else was at play. And it was — the same Puritan impulse that would later greet Fosse’s Chicago, Dancin’ and All That Jazz: How dare he suggest that there was such a thing as sex in the world! Not merely, in George Carlin’s ironic phrase, “Man on top, get it over with quick” sex but transgressive, unusual, non-normative, non-procreative sex!

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Timothy Scott in the Dancin’ first national tour, with Valerie-Jean Miller and Cynthia Onrubia. Photo by Martha Swope.

Flash-forward to December 1979 and my first trip to New York as a theatre-mad 18-year-old, seeing Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ at a matinee performance. Ann Reinking was out, as was her wont — although I intuited how exhausting the show must be, it was only later that I understood just how grueling that three-act marathon was for Fosse’s dancers — but the experience was transformative nonetheless. I was especially impressed by a brilliant young dancer who, coincidentally, shared two of my names; I simply could not take my eyes of Timothy Scott whenever he was on-stage. While he was, physically, definitely my “type” (or one of my types, anyway) it was his technique, his expertise, his energy and his sheer stage presence, especially in the “Big Noise from Winnetka” trio, that made him irresistible. (When I got home, I wrote him a fan letter; it went un-answered.) A trained jazz dancer, Scott seemed to me the perfect masculine embodiment of the Fosse style. My psyche was no less Art-and-Beauty orientated than Fosse’s, save that his concentration was on the female of the species, mine on the male.

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Timothy Scott’s Playbill headshot.

Then, in the winter of 1980, All That Jazz. A movie that obsessed me to such a degree that, as stage manager of a local production of Life with Father that season, my nightly exhortation to the troupe over the tannoy at the top of Act One was Joe Gideon’s somewhat shame-faced, “It’s showtime, folks!”

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Rowell Gormon, Life with Father‘s Reverend Dr. Lloyd, gave caricatures to the cast and crew as closing night gifts. In mine, he captured my Fosse phase perfectly.

That summer I staged, and performed in, a pair of dances for a local revue, one of them my memory, not entirely accurate, of Cabaret’s “Money, Money,” for myself and my friend Lisa. Discovering that Fosse, who did not enjoy the usual and requisite ballet training of his peers and lacking the terpsichorean vocabulary to express to his dancers precisely what he wanted from them, charted his ideas through the use of stick figures, was an encouragement. Although I was far less conversant with the nomenclature of dance than Fosse, I was able to work out my choreography (such as it was) that way, and did. There was enough enthusiasm on that stage to make up for my choreographic inadequacies, but what mattered most to me was creating an homage to one of my idols.

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In retrospect, I realize that my interest in Fosse began much earlier than my seeing Cabaret, at age 11, with the 1972 telecast of his Liza with a Z, one of the entities that conferred on him a still-unchallenged Triple Crown as recipient of the three major, nicknamed, show-biz awards (Oscar®, Tony®, Emmy®) in a single year. I just didn’t, at that moment, know who he was. I got a much clearer sense of him the following summer, on seeing his movie debut, the heartbreaking Sweet Charity, on television.

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So, Bob Fosse: One of the handful of true American originals, and a repository of show-biz tropes that, yoked to his own physical defects, became a style. Adored and, if not reviled, at least dismissed, in equal measure. Capable of astonishing on a regular basis, yet a simulacrum of his own limitations. Endlessly fascinating while, at one and the same moment, and in some elemental fashion, personally repellent.

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On that last point, I suppose Fosse joins a not so very select list; some of the creative artists whose work I most admire were, or are, problematic as people. As someone (sources vary) once noted, he who would eat sausages or respect the law would do well not to find out how either are made. The same holds true of admiration; best to maintain a distance, or risk discovering that one’s heroes possess feet of purest clay. That axiom presents a problem for those who, like me, are by nature intensely curious, particularly about the work they love and the people who make it. Although as a reader I am at best a sort of literary magpie, flitting from one shiny object to another, I am especially enamored of biography and what my best friend and I think of as “the backstage stuff.” Do I dare find out too much about my idols?

Add this: The very nature of the human psyche and the human heart militates against complete understanding. How many of us fully comprehend ourselves, and our own motivations, let alone those of others? How far can empathy extend? How does even the most incisive, competent biographer make sense of what is, essentially, inexplicable? The best know they never can. Externals give clues, but clues only. And thanks to the various schools of psychology, and our own imperfect grasp of them, head-shrinking is now a game any number can play— and do. And the more noted the subject, the greater the impulse to analyze.

These personal, exhaustive (and, admittedly, exhausting) ruminations are occasioned by my having finished reading Sam Wasson’s fat biography Fosse (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.) Wasson’s monograph on Blake Edwards (the wonderfully titled A Splurch in the Kisser) held me, even at its most academically pretentious, and his little book on Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.) was often enchanting. And given my nearly lifelong fascination with Bob Fosse, the pull of the book was damn near irresistible.

And so I have emerged on the far side of Fosse even more depressed than usual.

If that is explicable due to its subject’s love affair with death, it is so only in part: I’ve long been conversant with that aspect of Fosse’s psychology. Indeed, as a more-than-somewhat obsessive aficionado of All That Jazz my first, uncensored thought when I heard, in the autumn of 1987, that Fosse had died was, Well, he finally got to fuck Angelique. Less than Bob Fosse’s own darkness, then, it was the sheer, almost unrelenting, piling up of incident that got to me; six-hundred pages’ worth of neurotic dissipation can do that to you.

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But is that due to Fosse — or to Wasson’s Fosse? When I read Kevin Boyd Grubb’s Razzle Dazzle: The Life and Works of Bob Fosse in 1990 I was certainly moved, but the principal emotion I felt afterward was exhilaration — the sense that Fosse’s best work, seen on film or experienced in the moment, mitigated his darkness, even his death. But in Fosse, that very work is itself buried under the relentlessness of detail. The book is not a poison-pen biography by any means. Yet what you carry with you is, not the indelible imagery the man left us but the overall, debilitating miasma of his life. Or, in any case, of the life Sam Wasson describes. In its way, Fosse is the literary equivalent of Star 80, the director’s 1983 meditation on the brief life and brutal death of Dorothy Stratten. The dread sets in early, and never abates.

The sense of unease begins with Wasson’s death-watch chapter titles, which open with “60 Years” and devolve from there; the last is “One Hour and Fifty-Three Minutes.” Any life can be measured in those terms, of course, and I suspect that no one would have appreciated those chapter headings more than Bob Fosse. They’re like those shock-cuts that recur in Star 80 and which so unnervingly portend a grisly finish that the viewer feels trapped in a hell too visceral to walk away from. This viewer did, anyway; the images, veiled and uncertain at first but attaining full and hideous definition by the end, still linger from my initial exposure 30 years ago. Although I didn’t care a great deal for Lenny, Star 80 is the one Fosse movie I simply cannot imagine ever sitting through again. The infamous open-heart surgery in All That Jazz was a jolly romp by comparison.

While Wasson sings the praises of Martin Gottfried’s Fosse biography All His Jazz and never once mentions Kevin Boyd Grubb in the text, his end-notes indicate that he has quoted from Razzle Dazzle extensively, if selectively. While it is true that Grubb’s book has been faulted for its errors, it at least had the virtue of having been written by an expert in dance, and not by a sexual neurotic: Gottfried, whose long and risibly suspect tendency to determine dread homosexual underpinnings in all things theatrical, and to oppose them rather hysterically, reached a kind of nadir in his review of Pippin which, notoriously, hailed Fosse’s staging as having returned choreography to a heterosexual norm at long, long last. The image one gets is of a Broadway theatre in which squads of screaming nellies, wrists limply a-flail, routinely invaded the stages of every musical, humping each other’s legs (and other body parts?) while Gottfried, aghast, watched, helpless and terrified.

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Ben Vereen and the Players in Pippin.

Wasson too, despite his avowed adoration of movie musicals, seems curiously loathe to approach homosexuality in any direct manner. For a field — dance — which has long attracted young gay men, that’s a striking omission. Fosse’s bête noire Michael Bennett is noted in the book as Donna McKechnie’s partner, and later as a notable loss to AIDS, but the leap from one to the other is entirely mental on the part of the reader. As is Wasson’s citing of Fosse’s jealousy over Ann Reinking’s relationship, whatever it was, with the dancer Charles Ward; Wasson tells us that other Fosse dancers assumed Ward was gay, but elides over that, never acknowledging as Grubb does that Ward was, for many of Fosse’s Broadway corps, their first friend and colleague to succumb to the virus.

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Fosse’s ambisexual corps in Dancin’.

Fosse was quoted (in a New York Times interview from the time of Pippin which Wasson ignores, and which Gottfried presumably never read) as — to use a certain recent Presidential term — evolving in his attitudes toward his gay dancers: “Always before if I found a male dancer I knew was homosexual, I would keep saying, no, you can’t do that, don’t be so minty there. This time, I used the kind of people they were to give the show individuality, and they were so happy about it. I think it helped the show.” In a book necessarily drenched in its subject’s sexuality and in his fascination with sex, this omission is telling.

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The sexy, brilliantly staged, and acted, invitation to a menage in Cabaret.

I don’t mean to belabor the point; after all, Fosse’s heterosexuality is integral to his work, and to the dances he created that occasionally scandalized the prudes, much as Joe Gideon’s “Take Off with Us” routine in All That Jazz shocks his collaborators. But, again, the slow realization, by audiences as well as the characters on-screen in All That Jazz, that Roy Scheider’s Gideon has actually done it, that he is going to depict two men and two women dancing romantic and sexual pas de deux in a musical was, in 1979, one of those absolutely galvanizing movie moments, like the achingly almost-ménage à trois in Fosse’s Cabaret, that heralded not merely tense anticipation and a gradually released pleasure in those movies’ gay audiences, but a complete relaxation about erotic variation on the part of the filmmaker himself.

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The mesmerizing male pas de deux in “All That Jazz.”

Which brings us rather neatly to the major disappointment of Fosse: While film-freak Wasson illuminates the making of Bob Fosse’s quartet of movies — all that “backstage stuff” — with admirable detail and scholarship, the finished products are not treated with the same consideration. This, from an author whose previous books exhibited a boundless enthusiasm for movies and a keen, if occasionally academicized, grasp of critique, is puzzling at best. Yes, Fosse is long already, but if that were the editorial concern I would note that the Houghton Mifflin typeface is generous, and could surely have been reduced to a fractionally smaller font. Overviews are sometimes dangerous, but in the case of a book like this, they’re almost de rigeur, especially as Wasson is too young to have seen Pippin or Chicago or Dancin’, or even Fosse’s Broadway swan-song, Big Deal, and is thus at a critical disadvantage in conveying his subject’s theatrical achievements. None of Fosse’s later shows, aside from a rather poor, scaled-down Pippin, was videotaped for posterity, even in the now-standard archival format; you’d either have to have been there or be the sort of writer John Anthony Gilvey proved in his superb Gower Champion biography Before the Parade Passes By, to produce the sensation of those historic dances by and for those who never got the chance to see them. But film is (at least for the moment) eternal, and each of Fosse’s quartet of movies is available for perusal and rife for commentary.

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Blane Savage, Ann Reinking, Charles Ward and Sandahl Bergman in Dancin’, photogrpahed by Martha Swope.

Wasson seems so intent on the shock value of ending Bob Fosse’s history, and his book, at the very moment of his death that nothing is said about his legacy in the 26 years since he left us. Surely, a word or two, if only in an epilogue, is due to what has been done with Fosse’s choreography, and his shows, subsequently: Say, the popular revue Fosse which, while preserving his choreography, also misinterpreted and diminished it. Or the phenomenally popular “stripped-down” Chicago revival, little more than staged concert but one that, nonetheless, proved the worth of the show decades after its chilly initial reception. Or the subsequent, rather facile and misguided (though also massively popular) movie version, made by people (such as Craig Zadan) with impeccable backgrounds in theatre who nonetheless felt the need to “explain” why the musical numbers existed. If you have to explain the reason for the numbers in a musical, why are you making a musical at all?

Fosse is, despite these many cavils, a thoroughly engrossing book. Wasson’s many interviews with Fosse’s friends, lovers, colleagues and dancers give it an aspect of laudable completeness and verisimilitude. I daresay that few recent books on the theatre have had greater scope, and Wasson’s organization and arrangement of these disparate details is more than admirable. (Think how much he must have had to leave out!) He allows those who loved Bob Fosse, even as he exasperated them, full sway to convey their emotions, some of them remarkably fresh decades after the fact. He also gives Fosse’s detractors enough rope to hang themselves quite nicely: Hal Prince claiming Fosse ran his entire oeuvre off the energy of his, Prince’s, original staging of Cabaret; Stephen Sondheim observing that he never bought Fosse’s darkness as anything other than a pose, and judging that the man who turned his own, much-remarked upon, physical limitations into a style “saw the last 20 minutes of Follies” and made a career out of it.

It is, finally, the numbing piling-on of dissipation that is the chiefest aspect of Wasson’s Fosse, and the most dispiriting. Thesis biographies, like thesis plays, rarely get beyond a narrow point of view; the thesis is all. Thus: The endless sexual conquests that make Bob Fosse seem like a real-life version of the Dean Martin “Dino” character in Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s Kiss Me, Stupid, in danger of a headache if he doesn’t have sex every single night of his life. The insistence, odd in a man whose love of and respect for women suggests a kind of nascent, if foot-scuffling, feminism, on his partners’ absolute erotic fealty to him even as he indulged himself satyrically… and even as he recognized the absurdity in himself. Yet the gentle, apologetic visionary of Shirley MacLaine’s memoirs, the driven soul whose genius could be ruthless and cruel even as he was begging everyone’s pardon for it (“One more time, please… Forgive me”) is in scant evidence here, as is the filmmaker whose apotheosis of style in the service of content, the magnificent Cabaret, won him a deserved place in movie history and whose self-lacerating All That Jazz stands as a model of staggeringly effective cutting. Instead, we get: The chain-smoking that reached such heights of madness that, during periods of intense working concentration Fosse often burned his own lips. The drinking, the drugs. The manic-depression. All of it doubtless real, and much of it contributing both to Fosse’s self-made myth and to his early demise… but much of it as well repetitious to the point of authorial obsession.

As an adolescent, allowed to perform in the appalling world of Chicago burlesque, Fosse was likely initiated into sex at an early age, and in circumstances so exceptionally ugly even he lacked the intestinal fortitude to depict them fully in All That Jazz. This may or may not account for his love/hate relationships with women, but it is undoubtedly horrid, and terribly sad, and may go a long way toward explaining his life-long struggles with suicidal depression. “In today’s world,” Fosse was quoted in the late ’70s, “everything seems like some sort of long audition.” For him, that call-back process may have had its central metaphor in the approach/avoidance of death, but that didn’t make his accomplishments deathish.

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The first page of Bernard Drew’s 1979 American Film article on Fosse and All That Jazz.


 

If my response to Wasson’s book seems excessively personal, that’s because it is. Bob Fosse’s work has meant so much to me through the years that I feel compelled to defend him against what is, in the end, a biography more interested in the man’s personal flaws than his measurable achievement. I’m also aware that my veneration of Fosse is entirely subjective, and selfish; his gradual physical debilitation, as much as his death, deprived me of what I most wanted from him: More.

There is a great deal to admire about Fosse, but I wish the man whose best movies turned my head around and altered my world and whose self-indulgent, occasionally vulgar but utterly exhilarating Dancin’ I count as one of the seminal theatrical experiences of my youth, had gotten a more sympathetic biographer than Sam Wasson. “Sympathetic” in the sense, not of condoning his subject’s excesses as a man and as an artist or adorning him in mindless hagiography, but in the wider meaning: As one who expresses an understanding of the art itself, and knows that when dealing with a creative person the work, in the final analysis, is all that really matters.

Everything else is just marking time.

1Bob Fosse – All That Jazz

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

List, List, O List!: Being an Idiosyncratic and Annotated Compendium of 50 Essential Books on or About the Theatre, Sans Preamble and with a Preponderance of Musical Theatre Titles & an Unavoidable Focus on the work of Americans and Arranged by Sundrie Authors.

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By Scott Ross

Hollis Alpert, The Life and Times of Porgy and Bess.  A thorough history of George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s “Broadway opera” (with a lyrical assist from Ira, leading to the Gershwin heirs’ ludicrous declarative title for the recent revival, The Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” which elicited a stern, and quite proper, rebuke from Stephen Sondheim.) The book is attractively put together in an over-sized format, with scads of photos. Included is the famous 1950s “goodwill tour” of Russia (which Truman Capote followed, and wrote up for The New Yorker) and the glorious 1976 Houston Opera production starring the rapturous Clamma Dale.

Amy Asche, ed., Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein I.  The most recent in Knopf’s beautiful series of coffee-table lyric collections, all of which are stylishly produced, contain breathtaking arrays of production photos and are as exhaustive as seems humanly possible.

A Pictorial History of the American Theatre

Daniel Blum, A Pictorial History of the American Theatre, 1860-1980 (New Fifth Edition; Enlarged by John Willis).  A huge volume in the Pictorial History series, noted for their thoroughness and their impossibly crowded pages of tiny photographs. Still, to leaf through one of these volumes is to be completely transported into the past.

Everything Was Possible

 

 

 

Ted Chapin, Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical “Follies.”  I have been obsessed with this show, to my mind the greatest of all musicals, since my teens. (Name-Drop Warning!) In an early ’80s letter, I suggested such a book to Stephen Sondheim, who replied that he didn’t think much of the idea, “especially after the fact.” How wrong he was! And how grateful we should all be that it was Ted Chapin who put this together. He was there. He saw. He knows. And his personal view of the proceedings makes for an immediacy and a comprehensiveness that are just about definitive.

Don Dunn, The Making of “No, No, Nanette.”  This one is dated by Davis’ smug, condescending and, frankly, bitchy remarks about “homos” in the theatre, and his frequent imputations to the many gay men involved in this successful revival of comically swish attitudes and over-the-top, camp enthusiasms. Be that as it may; until Everything Was Possible, this was the most complete accounting we’d ever gotten of the production, from conception to aftermath, of a single musical show. It’s all here: The back-stabbing and in-fights, the terrible realization early in rehearsals that Busby Berkeley was not the man for the job of staging, the sackings, and the battle royal between the peripatetic Harry Rigby and the rather monstrous Cema Rubin, which culminated in the heartbreak of Rigby’s losing the rights to his own show. I don’t know whether it’s a juicy backstager, a cautionary tale or just a decent job of reportage (those gratuitous homophobic tendencies notwithstanding) but it certainly is compelling.

Richard France, The Theatre of Orson Welles.  France’s is the only volume of which I am aware that concentrates solely on Welles’ theatre work, and despite its un-attractiveness as a book, the scholarship is as impeccable as the conclusions are, occasionally, biased against — and unfair toward — the author’s subject.

John Gielgud, An Actor and His Time.  Essentially a transcription of Gielgud’s multi-part BBC Radio program, this is a rich, informative, amusing and beautifully illustrated volume by and about one of the greatest actors of the last century. Not to be missed.

Jon Anthony Gilvey, Before the Parade Passes By: Gower Champion and the Glorious American Musical.  Gilvey writes about Champion’s work as though he’d been present for every show — an impossibility, given his age — and his descriptions of such seminal stagings as the opening of Carnival put you front row center, with an immediacy and a fulsomeness rare in books of this kind.

The Season

William Goldman, The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway.  Another book that suffers from some dated attitudes, again in particular toward gay men. But Goldman’s complete accounting of a single season (1967-1968) is breezy, informative, fascinating and, at times, wildly funny. I discovered a Bantam paperback edition in a second-hand book shop at 16, and devoured it in record time, and with the ardor only the completely stage-struck can approximate. Or appreciate. The wealth of detail remains vivid nearly four decades later. What’s especially interesting now is that Goldman’s overview took in a season that was generally regarded as one of Broadway’s worst — yet how rarified a world it seems now, with all those plays opening. Not musicals. Plays. In retrospect, and despite his own frequent disappointment, Goldman’s season was, compared with today, a veritable Golden Age.

The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical

Mark N. Grant, The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical.  Speaking of disappointment with contemporary Broadway… Grant, a composer, surveys the best of the great age of innovation with keen musicianship and some surprising findings (the fox trot as the source of the American Popular Song… who knew?) He then brings us to now, and despairs. Everything of which he quite properly complains is something I, and many others who work in and love theatre, have been kvetching about for years: The over-amplification, the nearly total reliance on song catalogs and hit movies as source material, the creeping amateurishness of and rock-style reliance on assonance by most contemporary lyricists, the soaring cost of tickets, the appalling behavior of audiences, the ubiquitous standing ovations for every show… With all that, and some pointed critiques of specific composers and librettists (even Sondheim comes in for a few, gently articulated and quite astute, knocks) I can even forgive Grant for his dismissal of Kander and Ebb.

Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare.  If, as the ad-meisters like to say, you only read one book on Shakespeare, let it be this one. Greenblatt’s scholarship and research are impeccable, his findings sometimes startling but always on point, and his appreciation of the playwright total and convincing. It’s also a richly textured depiction of Elizabethan England, with all its perils, and that rare volume by a heterosexual historian and critic to take in, appreciate and even commend, the seemingly fluid sexuality of the Bard. Invaluable and unique.

Otis Guernsey, Playwrights, Lyricists and Composers on Theatre.  An anthology of pieces from the Dramatist Guild Quarterly during the early ’70s, this one is especially notable for its delicious panel discussions by the participants of specific shows, and includes Sondheim’s Lyrics and Lyricists talk, in which (among other things) he illustrates how he took a beautiful piece of dramatic prose by James Goldman and transliterated it into the stunningly poetic lyric for Evening Primrose’s “I Remember.”

Moss Hart, Act One.  The great-granddaddy of all modern theatre memoirs. Hart, looking back from the perspective of the late 1950s, re-created his early days as the prototypical stage-struck young man, and his early collaboration with George S. Kaufman on Once in a Lifetime. It’s a sharp, witty, gloriously fulsome self-portrait with one interesting little curlicue: Nowhere in it does this healthy young American male mention dating a girl. In light of later revelations about Hart’s conflicted sexuality, that omission seems almost no omission at all. (See also: Steven Bach — Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart.)

Mary C. Henderson, Mielziner: Master of Modern Stage Design.  A gorgeous and profusely illustrated coffee-table tribute to one of the most important American scenic designers.

Hirschfeld on Line

Al Hirschfeld, Hirschfeld on Line.  A long look back, from the then near-centenarian. A huge volume, taking in everything from Hirschfeld’s early, “serious art” phase to the evolution of his utterly unique style of caricature, from the ’20s to the Aughts. When I was a teenager I used to wonder how, when this venerable and brilliant man passed, an actor would know he’d “arrived” without Al to sketch him. Little did I know then how many more decades Broadway hopefuls had in which to make that arrival. Treasurable.

John Kander and Fred Ebb with Greg Lawrence, Colored Lights: Forty Years of Words and Music, Show Biz, Collaboration, and All That Jazz.  A lovely book, in which the most important and innovative songwriting team since the heyday of Bock and Harnick discuss their respective beginnings and their many superb collaborations. I’m deeply indebted to Greg Lawrence for getting them on the record while Ebb was still with us.

Robert Kimball, The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter.  One of the earliest of the Knopf volumes, and one of the best. Literacy, humor, astoundingly free-flowing inner-rhyme and hot sex have seldom been so wittily evoked, or invoked, in the musical theatre.

Robert Kimball, Cole.  A sumptuous, over-sized trove of photos and personal reminiscence by Porter’s friends and collaborators.

Robert Kimball and Alfred Simon, The Gershwins.  The companion to Cole in the beauty, style and completeness of its pictorial lushness.

Robret Kimball and Stephen Nelson, The Complete Lyrics of Frank Loesser.  Loesser was an anomaly: A full-time lyricist and amateur composer from the world of pop and Hollywood who came East and took Broadway by the throat with Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. Each time he re-defined himself, and expanded the syntax of musical theatre expression: From brassy, Runyanesque Broadway to near-opera to potent satire that, nevertheless, was amusing enough not to worry all those tired businessmen who flocked to it. Loesser’s great run was brief, perhaps, but few have accomplished as much in so comparatively little time.

Robert Kimball, Barry Day, Miles Kreuger and Eric Davis, The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer.  While Mercer was, like Frank Loesser, more a creature of Hollywood and Vine than Broadway and 42nd, he began in musical revues and made periodic visits. He wasn’t always as successful on the boards as on the sound stages (as he was the first to admit) but his lyrics to Harold Arlen’s magnificent score for St. Louis Woman alone would place him in the Pantheon. This is a book I wish to hell I’d had at my side when I was creating my own Mercer revue in the mid-’90s, transcribing all those songs by ear and, later, discovering with a pang that I’d blown some of them. (Pre-Google, who knew that “cute vest-pocket Mazda” referred to light bulbs?)

Journey to the Center of the Theatre

Walter Kerr, Journey to the Center of the Theatre.  As a critic, Kerr has his own naysayers, but he was an unusually intelligent and big-hearted reviewer, and this collection of his 1970s work on theatre (and, occasionally, film) amply illustrates why his readers were so devoted. I particularly treasure his anger at Paddy Chayefsky in 1971 for not writing all that great, rhetorical dialogue in The Hospital for the stage, and his re-evaluation of the lie at the center of the otherwise splendid Alice Adams: Who, he wonders, could possibly accept the pulchritudinous young Katharine Hepburn as a wallflower?

Miles Kreuger, “Show Boat”: The Story of a Classic American Musical.  This superb early ’70s work, fortunately reissued in time for the complete 1988 studio cast recording of the score on Angel. (Kreuger was an important contributor to that boxed set of LPs and discs.) Among the first, finest, and most beautifully appointed, books of its kind.

Alfred A. knopf [Borzoi]  1969 Lawrence Ratzkin

John Lahr, Notes on a Cowardly Lion.  Lahr, then beginning his career as a critic, wrote this graceful, loving but remarkably clear-eyed portrait of his famous father just before Bert’s untimely death while shooting The Night They Raided Minsky’s. It captures a great clown in all his contradictory moods, his fabled insecurity, and his joyous genius. 40-plus years later it remains one of the most lucid, intelligent and compelling biographies of any theatre star.

John Lahr, Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton.  Switching gears completely, Lahr next concentrated on the transgressive British playwright, unapologetically gay and astonishingly prolific throughout his brief, meteoric rise. In a sense, this is a dual biography, since Orton’s life — and even his very death — were so inextricably commingled with that of his one-time lover and eventual murderer Joe Halliwell. Quoting liberally from Orton’s then-unpublished diaries and early novels, all of which the author would later prove instrumental in getting into print, Lahr paints an unblinking portrait of a genius and wit whose appetites for casual sex perfectly reflected his times but the details of which would doubtless have shocked his public, and may shock some even now. The book is of enormous importance, if only for rescuing an important modern playwright from near-oblivion.

Arthur Laurents, Original Story By: A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood.  Laurents was famously prickly, and his memoir percolates with anger and contrariness even as it celebrates the author’s own accomplishments, his friendships and collaborations, and paints an indelible portrait of post-war American movies and theatre, musical as well as “straight.” Laurents was unique among his gay peers for refusing to pass, and for not feeling he had to.

Alan Jay Lerner, The Street Where I Live.  Although his later biographer Gene Lees invoked the famous advice of the frontier newsman to James Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”) as descriptive of Lerner’s memoir, it’s an irresistible volume for those who appreciate its author’s wit and rare literacy. Lerner certainly knew how to tell good stories about himself, and some of them may even have been true. Appended with a nice selection of lyrics from his best work.

Tom - The Unknown Tennessee Williams

Lyle Leverich, Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams.  The only unfortunate aspect of this glorious, revelatory biography is that its author did not live to complete a second volume. Leverich traces Thomas Lanier Williams from his earliest days to the heady success of The Glass Menagerie with such impeccable scholarship and understanding, both of his subject and his subject’s milieus, that you feel as though you’d never known anything about Tennessee before reading this book, and may never find out as much after.

Ken Mandelbaum, “A Chorus Line” and the Musicals of Michael Bennett.  Mandelbaum’s terrific biography of Bennett is also a riveting account of how the then-longest running of all musicals came into being. Bennett’s death from AIDS at 44 arguably robbed the American theatre of what might have been the ultimate popular maturation of the form.

William J. Mann, Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand.  Covering Streisand’s life and development only up to the end of her run in Funny Girl, Mann concentrates his formidable wit and skill on what, and who, made her, apart from her own, unassailable drive and self-belief. Scrupulously foot-noted, exhaustively researched, this is the sort of book one waits decades for, and which mere fannish hacks can never get near, let alone touch.

Who Put the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz

Harold Meyerson and Ernie Harburg, Who Put the Wizard in “The Wizard of Oz”?: Yip Harburg, Lyricist.  An important overview, and a long overdue biographic and critical assessment of one of the American musical’s most whimsical yet socially committed artists; the section on Finian’s Rainbow would, by itself, make this worth reading. The obvious affection for, and appreciation of, the subject (one of the co-authors is Yip’s son) does not, however, led to hagiography. Harburg was known to be difficult — his quirks of personality led his two finest musical collaborators, Harold Arlen and Burton Lane, to resist continued work with him — but his ultimate legacy is social comment buoyed by wit and charm. No one but Harburg could have created both Og the love-sick leprechaun and Flahooley, the Capitalist nightmare, let alone conceived of a world “Over the Rainbow” or written that anguished Depression-era cri de coeur “Brother, Can You Spare a Time?”

Arthur Miller, Timebends: A Life.  Miller’s dramaturgy seems to me largely overrated and under-heated, especially when contrasted with the conflicted poetry of Tennessee Williams, his major post-war play-writing rival. But as an essayist and, here, as a memoirist, Miller carved out a niche particular to him, and in which he was most at home. His philosophical musings on friendship, betrayal, HUAC, Marilyn Monroe and the nature of dramatic theatrical expression occasion some of his finest writing. Fittingly, too, he wrote not a standard, linear autobiography but something approaching the labyrinthine manner in which memory itself so often works.

Ethan Mordden, Broadway Babies: The People Who Made the American Musical.  Mordden is the Ken Tynan of the American musical, even when, as in this book, he is annoying you with self-coined musical terminology (“numbo” here seems to mean “central aria” or, in the parlance, The Eleven O’clock Number, but where he came up with that one, no one knows) or making specious claims (Bibi Osterwald’s studio recording of Gypsy, he tells us, may reveal the best Mama Rose of them all, yet a lyricist friend tells me that when he asked Mordden about this, the author admitted he’d never heard the record) or, as lately, spreading the hack phrase, “So to say” with whorish indiscretion. For a long time, this overview of the great creators of the form was the standard reference — until, that is, his own subsequent volumes taking on the musical decade by decade, supplanted it.

Ethan Mordden, One More Kiss: The Broadway Musical in the 1970s.  The author’s periodic critical histories of the American musical by decade eventually led to this, the most anticipated volume: The one that takes in the ascendancy of Sondheim and the flowering of Bob Fosse’s genius.

The Fireside Companion to the Theatre

Ethan Mordden, The Fireside Companion to the Theatre.  One of the most well-thumbed books in my library, brimming with the author’s informed and idiosyncratic critical acumen. It’s all here, from Aeschylus to The Zoo Story, illuminated with wit and perspicacity. Mordden is particularly fine on O’Neill, but flip to any entry and chances are you will emerge hours later, having been inspired to skip to dozens of others.

George Plimpton. ed., Playwrights at Work.  This sublime collection of Paris Review interviews includes invaluable conversations on the craft with Thornton Wilder, Lillian Hellman, Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, Eugene Ionesco, Arthur Miller, Neil Simon, Edward Albee, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard and John Guare, among other (to me) lesser or more negligible figures (Sam Shepard, August Wilson, David Mamet and Wendy Wasserstein.) My copy is thick with Hi-Liter marks, and the collective wisdom contained herein is essential.

Hal Prince, Contradictions: Notes on Twenty-Six Years in the Theatre.  Perhaps prematurely, Prince recorded his memories of his work up to 1974. (His hunger years were just around the corner.) But as I regard him as the most important of the so-called “superstar” directors of the period, in his staging innovations and his embrace of more intelligent, thoughtful, and mature, content in the musical, his reminiscences are compelling, and fascinating.

The Theatre Art of Boris Aronson

Frank Rich and Lisa Aronson, The Theatre Art of Boris Aronson.  Aronson’s work ranged from designs for the Yiddish theatre in the 1920s to The Diary of Anne Frank in the ’50s and ended with such groundbreaking Hal Prince shows as Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Company, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and what must constitute his (and Prince’s, and Sondheim’s) ultimate masterpiece, Follies. This sumptuous visual appreciation holds pride of place in my library.

Deena Rosenberg, Fascinating Rhythm: The Collaboration of George and Ira Gershwin.  A beautifully produced appreciation of the Gershwins (the cover reproductions of period sheet music practically shimmer) this overview by the daughter-in-law of Yip Harburg and the Artistic Director and Executive Vice President of the Harburg Foundation is informed by the author’s expertise, her skill at examining the material, and her obvious love for it.

John Simon, Singularities: Essays on the Theatre, 1964-1974.  Simon’s obsessive concern with physical beauty, and his occasionally suspect pronouncements, which too often teeter on the edge of anti-Semitism, have served to detract from his very real erudition, brilliance, enthusiasm and love of the theatre. These essays, which encompass Ibsen, Cyrano de Bergerac, and that essentially indefinable but invaluable entity called charm, are Simon at his clearest and most perceptive.

John Simon, Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theatre 1963-1973.  All of the personal idiosyncrasies that mar Simon’s writing are here, of course, but his enthusiasms, knowledge and devotion to concision carry you past the more obvious (and even odious) affectations.

Wonder of Wonders

Alisa Solomon, Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of “Fiddler on the Roof.”  Solomon’s expansive, informed and exciting evocations of Sholem Aleichem, the initially uncertain but ultimately triumphant creation of Fiddler, the making of the inevitable movie, and the show’s enduring impact down the decades makes for the finest book on musical theatre I’ve read in years.

Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principals, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes.  Take note of that sub-title; he means it…. and he takes no prisoners. (Not for nothing did American Theatre magazine title its review of the book “Snide by Snide by Sondheim.”) But that is, literally, a sidebar. The bulk of this indispensable book are the lyrics themselves and their author’s explications of their generation. For a man who claims to be no sure writer of prose, Sondheim’s is sharp, incisive, rigorously intelligent, often witty and always engaging.

No Applause Just Throw Money


D. Travis Stewart (Trav S.D.), No Applause—Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.  
This marvelous pop history, which I saw, unheralded in the theatre section at Borders, provided me more sheer pleasure than almost any comparable volume of its kind. Not that it has any comparable rivals. “Vaudeville is dead,” James Agee once complained of an annoying ’40s musical. “I wish to hell someone would bury it.” Trav S.D. exhumes the body, dusts it off, props it up and, through his own, witty alchemy, makes it animate again.

Steven Suskin, Opening Nights on Broadway: A Critical Quotebook of the Golden Era of the Musical Theatre, “Oklahoma!” (1943) to “Fiddler on the Roof” (1964).  Although Suskin is dismissive of Fiddler, among other landmarks, this fat omnibus of facts and contemporary newspaper reviews takes in every major musical offering (and many minor ones) between the advent of Rodgers and Hammerstein and the end of the era.

Jeffrey Sweet, Something Wonderful Right Away: An Oral History of the Second City and the Compass Players.  Discovering the Avon paperback reprint of this collection of interviews at 16 or so was one of those thunderclap experiences. I was enraptured for a week. To say that the Paul Sills, his mother Viola Spolin and the Second City improvisational theatre were influential is an understatement of staggering proportions. Virtually every major, important comedic performer of the 1960s, and a comparable number of 1970s comics (including virtually the entire original cast of NBC’s Saturday Night and many of their subsequent replacements, that show itself the greatest influence on comedy in the ’80s) came through its doors. The interviews are sometimes painful, often hilarious, and encompass Mike Nichols, Barbara Harris, Alan Arkin, Alan Alda, Joan Rivers, Robert Klein, David Steinberg, Gilda Radner, Del Close, Severn Darden, Paul Mazursky and Sills himself. Indispensable.

Kenneth Tynan, Tynan on Theatre.  A Penguin abridgment of Tynan’s 1961 collection of seminal reviews, Curtains, this collection is perhaps the single finest volume on Britain’s post-war theatre, with some sharp assessments of America added from Tynan’s brief engagement with The New Yorker. His opinions are infused with a lover’s besotted enthusiasm, cut with the skepticism of the too-often scorned, and informed by an erudition, and wit rare in reviewers on either side of the pond. Sample Tynan’s encomium to Orson Welles’ Moby Dick — Rehearsed (“With Moby Dick, the theatre becomes once more a house of magic”) and you may well be hooked for life.

Sam Wasson, Fosse.  This long, comprehensive, exceptionally well researched biography of a figure who has been one of my theatrical touchstones for decades, Fosse is endlessly fascinating and often problematic, but a must for aficionados of the man, his achievements, and musical theatre (and movie) history in the post-war era.

Arnold Wesker, The Birth of “Shylock” and the Death of Zero Mostel.  Wesker’s memoir of his ill-fated variation on The Merchant of Venice is both revelatory and heartbreaking. Written less in anger than in sorrow, the British playwright’s saga runs along a descending line, as Mostel struggles, uncharacteristically, with his lines, ultimately succumbing before the Broadway opening, and Wesker’s longtime director, the brilliant but insufferable John Dexter, abandons the troubled production for greener pastures.

Sondheim & Co.

Craig Zadan, Sondheim & Co.  A week after checking out the original cast recording of Company from the public library at the age of 15 I was back to take out this seminal history of its lyricist-composer’s career up to 1973. (That a Broadway songwriter could eschew any easy rhyme like “life” and “wife” in preference for the surprising and appropriate “life” and “woman” took the top of my head off.) I perused my own paperback edition so often I practically had it memorized. No other book on the theatre meant more to me then, and no other has since.


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

A much bigger circle: “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971)

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By Scott Ross

fiddler poster

Ralph Waldo Emerson once noted, “For everything you have missed, you have gained something else, and for everything you gain, you lose something else.” The 1971 film transmigration of the 1964 Broadway phenomenon Fiddler on the Roof is arguably the most beautifully made of all adaptations from the musical stage, and certainly one of the most faithful. By filming it in as realistic a manner as possible, and as close to the birthplace of its progenitor, Sholem Aleichem, as the director, Norman Jewison, could get (Yugoslavia), the filmmakers honored the material as well, I think, as the source. What fell away, inevitably, was much of the very thing that made Jerome Robbins’ original so striking and even, in the terms of the musical theatre of its time, revolutionary. Any truly theatrical experience, play or musical, that exists in a heightened, stylized state can only be diminished by literalism. This is why any sane admirer of Follies, say, can only hope no movie ever gets made of it. Unless (as here) the material can support the transliteration, and the filmmakers are able to balance the inevitable losses with considerable gains of their own.*

Boris Aronson's set design for the interior of Tevye's home. Note the circle of houses surrounding it representing Anatevka. Like the figure of the Fiddler, they are precariously balanced, even upside-down, but they hold.
Boris Aronson’s set design for the interior of Tevye’s home. Note the circle of houses surrounding it representing Anatevka. Like the figure of the Fiddler, they are precariously balanced, even upside-down, but they hold.

Realism cannot take in, for example, the potent abstraction of Boris Aronson’s original Fiddler set. Inspired by (but in no way slavishly reproducing) the shtetl-based paintings of Marc Chagall, Aronson constructed a series of stage images that fully expressed the key concerns of Robbins and his collaborators: Not merely the sense of tradition (arrived at through Robbins’ insistent, necessary, question, “What is this show about?”) but the crucial aspect of the circle which binds the community, the people of the play, even the faith itself.

 

Great Performances

Zero Mostel’s Tevye leads the original company of the stage musical.

Nor can a realistic style encompass the inherent theatricality of the piece as a whole, especially as Robbins directed and choreographed it. As when, for example, in the opening, Tevye is suddenly joined by the figures of the villagers, hands linked, emerging from either side of the stage to create the circle that stands for Anatevka itself. A couple of songs in the Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick were also shed during filming, but their omissions are more than adequately compensated for by the filmmakers’ otherwise rare fealty to the score, superbly enhanced by John Williams’ rich, sensitive and often thrilling arrangements.

Thus, what was lost. (For some die-hards, the replacement of Zero Mostel with the earthier and less ostentatious Topol was likely also a grievous loss.) So what was gained? On a simplistic, yet pleasurable, level, the land itself — vast, verdant, arable, even majestic —and the physicality of Anatevka, especially the magnificently realized wooden shul with its stunning, intricate murals, glimpsed in the opening number and, at the climax, gazed at in anguished silence by Zvee Scooler’s Rabbi as he prepares to depart its walls forever. (In her splendid book Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of “Fiddler on the Roof,” http://alisasolomon.com/

Alisa Solomon reports that Jewison wanted the building preserved but, by the time he’d reached an agreement in Israel for its transportation it had, heartbreakingly, already been torn down.) And too, the pogrom that destroys the wedding of Tevye’s daughter Tzeitl at the end of the first act is, because of film’s innate ability to realistically depict such events (Cossacks on horseback, flaming torches, shattered glass, the shredding of the young couple’s gifts) far more gripping, and powerful, on the screen than it can ever be on the stage.

Tevye and his director: Topol and Norman Jewison.
Tevye and his director: Topol and Norman Jewison.

The strength of photographic imagery in the movie of Fiddler begins almost immediately, and to the point; as Topol warms up “Tradition,” Jewison and his editors (Robert Lawrence and Anthony Gibbs) cut, in rhythm, to the various articles of faith as well as to the villagers themselves, engaged in their respective tasks. Not quite the image of the circle as enacted by the company on the stage, but each rapidly glimpsed clip sets, and reinforces, the theme of communal traditions as the glue that allows those in the Russian Pale of Settlement “to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking [their] neck[s].” Nowhere in the show, or the movie, of course, do the authors (Joseph Stein in his book and screenplay, Bock and Harnick in their score and, although un-involved with the movie, Jerry Robbins) suggest that the bending of ritual leads to the eventual expulsion of Anatekva’s Jews. It’s all of a piece: The advent of 20th century modernity and czarist anti-Semitism, conspiring by accident to alter the face, and form, of institutional observance. Tevye, seemingly the least hidebound of the older Anatevkans, bends, as he says, only so far. And although he is unwilling to break entirely, even he softens enough by the end to at least express his parting concern for his wayward daughter Chava, if only through the intermediary of his oldest, Tzeitl.

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Topol, that “huge dancing bear of a man” singing “Tradition.”

The one, indispensable, element of the movie’s strength must be accounted the performance of (Chaim) Topol as Tevye. As a Sabra the actor was, in common with many of his fellow Israelis of the time, not especially attuned to Yiddishkayt. (Indeed, many were entirely antipathetic.) But Topol’s size, his vigor, his warmth and his courage — as much as, when compared to that of Mostel, his smaller but no less compelling theatrical presence — bring him closer to us, and perhaps even to Sholem Aleichem. Pauline Kael, in her review of the movie, which she called “the most powerful movie musical ever made,” referred to Topol as “a huge dancing bear of a man.” That’s just about perfect, I think. Although the then-35-year-old actor was only slightly younger than Zero Mostel when he first assayed the role, he carries with him an authority, and an expansiveness, that goes far beyond the touches of gray in his hair and beard. And although he is a far more handsome man than Mostel, sings better and more easily attains the higher notes without noticeable strain, what’s essential, even elemental, about Topol is the sense he projects of a man who, while firmly affixed to the appurtenances of his faith, is capable of elasticity — the flexibility a plant, however well rooted, needs to survive.†

Great Performances

The lyricist (Sheldon Harnick) and the composer (Jerry Bock) of “Fiddler.”

Essential, too, are the songs by Bock and Harnick. It is not merely fashionable to dismiss them; most of the show’s original reviews expressed reservations (is that the polite term?) about this immensely treasurable score. But as much as Sholem Aleichem himself, the Fiddler songs are inextricably linked to the show’s sense of identity, its abundant charm and humor, and its remarkable power. Bock, one of his era’s most accomplished musical dramatists, as at home in New York’s Tenderloin as in Hungarian milieu of 1930s She Loves Me, steeped himself in Yiddish folk melody and klezmer, and refracted it through the prism of his own exceptional composition acumen. While the ultimate tone of, and concept for, Fiddler (then called Tevye) was not set during much of the writing process there is in Bock’s supple, often yearning, melodies the concert of the shtetl, at once vigorous and elegiac. And they are perfectly complemented by Harnick’s alternately playful, moving, direct and ruefully funny lyrics all of which seem, as he said of his experience wedding his words to Bock’s music for “Sunrise, Sunset,” to “crystallize on the music,” as though there could be no other possible lyrics to any of those tunes. (Although there were, reportedly, dozens of attempts for every song that finally placed.) I’ve noted this before, but I think it bears repeating: If you think evoking Sholem Aleichem’s people, and place, and doing so while keeping in your mind the correct rhythms and cadences, and the needs of the performers, and making the humor or the pathos land properly and effectively on 1,500 minds and hearts and pairs of ears hearing them for the first time, is easy, then go ahead: You write something as effective as “Tradition” or “Do You Love Me?” I’ll wait.

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Norma Crane (Golde) and the Yiddish theatre star Molly Picon (Yente the Matchmaker). Note Picon’s playful signature.

Kael, who loved the movie in spite of what she saw as the “squareness” of Jewison’s direction and the (to her) Broadway jokes and disposable songs, nevertheless carped about the performance of Molly Picon as Yente the Matchmaker. For all her gifts, Kael sometimes seemed to go to lengths to separate herself from her own Jewishness. I don’t mean her less than laudatory remarks about Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (with many of which I agreed — not least her complaints about its sheer, numbing length — but which got her in a lot of hot water with some readers and colleagues.) I refer instead to her rejection of some of the richer veins of humor which American show business has accepted as a delicious gift from its creative Jews but which, for Kael, smacked either of special pleading or of unconscious self-abasement. She was hardly alone in this. Indeed, as Solomon points out in Wonder of Wonders, resistance to, and rejection of, Yiddish theatrical traditions lies at the heart of controversies that attended every mid-century attempt to place Sholem Aleichem’s stories on the stage; second and third generations of Jewish-Americans didn’t want all that schmaltz and inflection with which their parents and grandparents loved cluttering up their brave new assimilationist world. So, nu? But Yente — her very name a Yiddish convention — is, while admittedly an invention of the show’s book writer Joseph Stein, very much a part of the soil of the shtetl, at least as delineated by the creative team that put the show together. Even granted Robbins’ understandable aversion, as Solomon also tells us, to making his Sholem Aleichem musical The Return of the Goldbergs, who better to embody Yente’s very yenteism than Picon? As the one-time, undisputed queen of the Yiddish theatre (although when she began she neither spoke nor understood Yiddish), Picon knew this woman in her very bones; the kvetching and kvelling, the self-martyring geshrais, the constant smug (and self-justifying) nudzhnikness of a woman who is despaired of but never entirely dismissed (all those children to be wed!) Picon’s performance, always pleasurable, is especially — sorry, it’s the only word that will do — piquant, now that Molly herself is no longer with us.

No such complaints greeted Norma Crane’s Golde, although Kael did complain that the role was under-written. Perhaps. But so is everyone’s, aside from Tevye; the show is not called Hello, Golde! you know. What Crane achieves in her more limited screen-time is a highly believable portrait of a careworn, un-lettered woman of the earth with a great deal of love but no time for sentiment. Crane (who died, shockingly young, of breast cancer, three years after the movie opened) had an almost Classical beauty, but hers is no glamour-puss Golde. No-nonsense, she bears her husband’s mischievous wiles as she does her daughters’ unruliness: with a shrug, an exasperated bark, or a sighing aside (“You can die from such a man…”) Yet Crane’s strength of character is not merely admirable, it’s necessary. How else could a woman like her bear the vicissitudes of that life? And when she breaks, after Tevye orders her on the road to forget her middle child Chava, the effect of her normally ram-rod straight body (black-clad as though in mourning and whipped by the winter wind) bent double in hopeless despair, is harrowing.

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Maybe the most rapturous lovers in movie musical history: Leonard Frey (Motel) and Rosalind Harris (Tzeitel.)

As Tzeitl, the eldest of the three marriageable daughters (the youngest pair are marginal) the beautiful Rosalind Harris makes an impression that can remain with you a lifetime. At a precocious 20 when the film was made, Harris carries herself with both a wry dignity and an open honesty of expression that she stays with you long after Tzeitl’s major part in the family drama is over. And as her nebbishy swain Motel, the adorably tongue-tied Leonard Frey is utterly endearing. Frey, who played the Rabbi’s son Mendl in the 1964 production (and who would eventually graduate to Motel on stage) had just come off reprising his definitive Harold in the movie of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band. Here, he is scarcely recognizable as the actor who portrayed that acid-tonged, “32-year old, ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy.” He nabbed an Academy Award® nomination for Motel (as Topol did for his Tevye) and one would have thought that, if he could successfully negotiate those two, wildly disparate, roles, the world should have been open to him. (Alas, it wasn’t, and he succumbed to AIDS at 50, in 1988, leaving behind the sense that a major career had, somehow, been thwarted aborning. By homophobia? Perhaps. Or maybe just the usual Hollywood myopia.) When he finds his voice at last, his serenading of Harris, and their delighted dance to “Wonder of Wonders” is one of the most rapturous numbers of its kind ever filmed.

fiddler-on-the-roof-image Perchik and Hodel

Bending, but not breaking: Perchik (Michael Glaser), Hodel (Michele Marsh) receive Tevye’s permission, and his blessing.

Michele Marsh, as Hodel, is a touch too conventionally cute, but she does convey the spirited independence of the role and sings a notably beautiful, poignant “Far from the Home I Love.” Hodel’s vis-a-vis, Perchik, is a bit of a pill in his ardent Socialist mania, which could make him a self-righteous boor in the wrong hands. Blessedly, Michael Glaser (later, as Paul Michael Glaser, the Starsky of television’s Starsky and Hutch) brings a kind of thoughtless, arrogant charm to the part, making Hodel’s eventual willingness to follow him as far as Siberia at least explicable.††

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Neva Small as Chava.

The third daughter, Chava is, in her way, crucial to the success of the narrative.  Her determination to not merely throw over tradition for love but to engage in apostasy, risking the eternal enmity and alienation of her beloved family and the entire Jewish circle of Anatevka, must be absolutely grounded or the increasingly troubling arc of the play’s darker second act can topple off its delicately balanced wheels. In Neva Small, Jewison found his ideal. In each of the show’s succeeding marriage stories, one gets the sense that these girls have been paying sharper attention to Tevye’s warm interior than his gruff exterior, and play off it in ways that place their father in ironic binds. But in the Chava story, that reading has not been nearly close enough; she pushes back harder, and more devastatingly, than she knows. Small somehow manages to embody both her father’s idealized vision of her (his “little bird,” his cherished Chavelah) and the less perfect self of reality. Inquisitive, keen, at once guarded and openhearted, Small’s face radiates intelligence and love in equal measure, making Chava’s eventual estrangement (and Tevye’s anguish) deeply, personally, traumatic.

Zvee Scooler lends his beautiful, gaunt face and gentle gravitas to The Rabbi.

Zvee Scooler lends his beautiful, gaunt face and gentle gravitas to The Rabbi.

The smaller roles were cast with similar care. Zvee Scooler, who played the innkeeper for the entire seven-year run of the play, makes a superb Rabbi. His gaunt, moving face and his gentle gravitas do much, I think, to take the curse off a role some Jewish commentators felt was too condescendingly comic on Broadway. Paul Mann’s Lazar Wolf, with his charmingly Santa Claus-like mien, is nicely judged as well, neither as boorish as Tevye at first believes nor as completely docile in the face of marital defeat as the peripatetic dairyman might hope. Louis Zorich likewise does wonders with the off-handedly anti-Semitic Constable who — in a scene added by Stein to the screenplay — makes agonizingly clear what Edmund Burke meant when he wrote that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (Well, maybe not “good” so much as halfway decent.) § And the Welsh singer Ruth Madoc is an unforgettable Fruma-Sarah in the inspired dream sequence, wildly funny in her uncannily witchy ululations.

“The Dream”: Tevye and Golde menaced by Fruma- Sarah (Ruth Madoc.)

Which brings us rather nicely around to the strengths of Jewison’s imagery. Onstage, “The Dream” leaps from one form of heightened theatricality (Aronsons’ set) to another (folk-inspired ghost story.) In the movie the effect of the humor, and the quality of its tongue-in-cheek ghoulishness, in the midst of the filmmaker’s “square,” quotidian visual palette, is even stronger, and funnier. (There’s a shot of Topol reacting to Fruma-Sarah with knock-kneed terror that is especially uproarious.) It’s a folk nightmare, the colors de-saturated, the costumes and make-up both over-the-top and eerie. That push-pull of the pragmatic and the fantastic is also true of the sudden distancing effect Jewison goes in for when Tevye confronts his daughters’ romantic yearnings: Topol is seen at a vast remove, suspended in agrarian space between his core beliefs and his overmastering love for his children. But when he speaks/sings, “Look at my daughter’s eyes…” the director immediately closes on those expressive orbs, bringing Tevye, and us, instantly back to the crux of the material’s emotional center. Likewise, the gorgeously realized “Chava Ballet” is rendered as a hallucination-like reverie, Tevye’s sense of his immediate world crumbling in the face not only of modernity but of the inevitable loss a parent experiences when his children move, as they must, away from his sphere of influence, and love.

The

The “Chava Ballet.”

The famous

The famous “Bottle Dance,” inspired by Jerry Robbins observing a red-bearded trickster at a couple of Jewish weddings in 1963.

In his quest to hone Fiddler to its essentials, the director Jerry Robbins left the choreographer Jerome Robbins somewhat high and dry, that “Chava Ballet” arrived at its effective abbreviation only after a much longer, more frenzied and frightening, number outstayed its welcome. But Robbins at least had a first act topper in the famed “Bottle Dance” during Tzeitl’s nuptials. Inspired by a trick he witnessed a red-bearded wedding guest perform at two different Jewish weddings, the dance has since become so much a part of the Fiddler ethos that many assume it’s an actual freylekh. Having been fired from the movie of West Side Story for the very deliberateness that led his theatrical collaborators to despair but which enhanced his unique staging, Robbins was never truly considered to helm the movie of his most successful stage musical, so it was up to his assistant, Tom Abbott, to re-create the original choreography, and it’s nowhere more ebullient or felicitous as during the wedding. Not only the sinuous “Bottle Dance” itself but the entire sequence is informed by Robbins’ meticulousness in recreating the exuberant, uninhibited, even frenetic, merry-making he witnessed at various Jewish weddings preparatory to mounting the show. And it’s here that Jewison makes one of his few missteps. The dance is shot, and edited, too casually, denying us the pleasure of watching those limber bodies going through their joyous paces. This is even more obvious when watching the Canadian Broadcasting documentary about Jewison on the Fiddler DVD, when the CBC’s camera placement during the “Bottle Dance” trumps Jewison’s own. Dance on film is always a sticky problem. Fred Astaire felt, with no small justification, that the camera should be placed at a distance (and not further cluttered up by fancy editing) so the audience could appreciate the footwork. Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen concurred, and they never interfere with our enjoyment of, and exultation in, even the most complex numbers in Singin’ in the Rain. So documentary realism has its limits, especially in musicals.

Fiddler on the Roof was, seemingly, a tough sell in the mid-1960s. Not only was the material overtly, even proudly, Jewish (as indeed were the Sholem Aleichem stories on which it was based) but its action embraced a pogrom and the saddest of all possible climaxes — the enforced expulsion of an entire people. In comfortable, and comforting, hindsight, one can always look back and say, of a hit, “Well, of course…” (I always thought John Simon was being more than slightly disingenuous when he opined during that decade that the most enormous possible sure-fire Broadway hit would be “a big, vulgar musical about black, Jewish homosexuals.” Simon’s target was theatrical parochialism, I know. But let’s not be ridiculous.) No, Fiddler was no sure thing, in 1964 or 1971. What sold it, and continues to sell it, was the collective intelligence, even genius, of its creators as much as — and I would argue, more than — the universality of the underlying material. The unwavering devotion of Robbins, Bock, Harnick, Stein and the original producer Harold Prince to telling this story well, and with scrupulous dedication to its shades of meaning within a specific confluence of humanity, was picked up, and codified, by Jewison & Co. in sumptuous turn. Those final, ineffably moving, images of a new Diaspora infused both with hope (in the amorphous form of Palestine and America) and hopelessness (in the unutterable grief of the dispossessed that presages the Shoah) contain, in microcosm, everything that made, and makes, Fiddler on the Roof such an imperishable fact of life.

Exodus: The haunting finale.

Exodus: The haunting finale.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

 

*One of my five favorite movies is the 1972 Bob Fosse version of Cabaret, itself, under Harold Prince’s direction, a highly stylized show. But as Fosse and his collaborators re-imagined the material, hewing more closely to the Christopher Isherwood model and throwing out the “book” songs, it’s the exception that proves the rule. Especially as the name most often reported in connection with a movie of Follies is — saints preserve us! —Rob Marshall.

†Topol was the London Tevye in 1967, based in part on the producer Richard Pilbrow’s having seen his 1964 Israeli comedy Sallah (or Shallah Sabbati.) Pilbrow was expecting to meet much older man. Topol, who had succeeded Bomba Zur in the role during the highly successful 1965 Israeli Fiddler, was not what you would call proficient in English before he starred in London, and it’s interesting to compare his performance on the movie soundtrack with that on the ’67 Columbia cast recording; his inflections in the latter tend to Anglicized pronunciation (“You may ahsk” rather than “You may ask.”)
††Glaser/Perchik lost out a solo in the movie. Motel’s original number during rehearsals for, and early performances of, the show (“Now I Have Everything”) was eventually ceded to Bert Convy’s Perchik but Jewison didn’t think it right for the movie. Jerry Bock’s replacement melody, “Any Day Now,” is among the finest and most rousingly apposite he ever composed, and Harnick’s lyrics are in admirably quirky character. But the moment is a bit of a dead-end, and it’s probably just as well the number was cut. You can hear it, in Glaser’s somewhat over-taxed rendition, on the Fiddler soundtrack CD and the DVD.

§Zorich is probably best known for his role on Mad About Youas Paul Reiser’s father Burt. From conductor of pogromsto befuddled Jewish pater familias — that’s one hell of a range.

Breaking Down the Walls: Sheldon Harnick at 90

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Note: Harnick will be 94 this June.

By Scott Ross

Harnick at 90 2C86CDC22-0540-0F58-52E3EDB9D5559A37

I’m over a month late in noting that, impossible as it seems, one of my favorite lyricists has become a nonagenarian. So consider this an overdue commemoration or, more simply, my attempt at an appreciation of a man whose work has given countless millions pleasure, whether or not they even know or recognize his name. Now this may be cold comfort, but people who couldn’t conjure the names Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg if their lives depended on it know one of their songs as well as they do “Happy Birthday.” If you know “Over the Rainbow,” you know them. And if you know “Sunrise, Sunset,” you know Sheldon Harnick.

In her superb Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof
http://alisasolomon.com/
Alisa Solomon refers to Sheldon Harnick as a “sensitive” lyricist, and I think that’s about as apt a description as any, although it does not take into account his playful wit nor his felicitous way with a rhyme. Those who enjoy rating lyricists may (at their peril) dismiss Harnick as a minor figure. Presumably he is considered “third tier,” a Hell I once saw Harnick’s early influence “Yip” Harburg consigned to in a book review, although I’ve never understood what that even means; any man who could write lyrics for The Wizard of Oz and Finian’s Rainbow places third on no scale.

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Neither does Harnick. Even his hitherto unknown “trunk” songs, those that didn’t make it into his shows, shimmer with keen perceptiveness and his special brand of gentle yet piquant humor. In honor of his 90th birthday, Harbinger Records has added a generous, two-disc sampling of Harnick’s demos and archival recordings to its Songwriter Showcase Series. On Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures, 1949-2013, you can savor, along with such familiar, and beloved, gems as “Merry Little Minuet,” “Garbage,” “Worlds Apart” and that non pariel cut-out from Fiddler “When Messiah Comes” such a plethora of Harnickian joy your facial muscles may ache from smiling. That’s when your eyes aren’t misting up from the perfectly pitched emotional impact of songs that never plead, or descend into bathos.

My only complaint, and it’s admittedly a minor one for the completist who no doubt already owns at least one iteration of Harnick’s utterly charming 1971 “Lyrics and Lyricists” concert/lecture, is that the Harbinger disc omits the lyricist’s delicious introductions. (Although he did write his own, charming and informative, liner notes.) This is particularly poignant, for example, when at the 92nd street Y Harnick recognizes within his work the theme of breaking down a wall. Sometimes this is explicit, as in “Worlds Apart,” but more often the metaphor is cloaked, as in Motel Kamzoil’s exuberant “Wonder of Wonders” in Fiddler with its flavorsome Biblical citations. Most writers, good and bad, have themes they address throughout their work, conscious or no. The best ring creative changes on their obsessions, and that applies as much to the great lyricists as to any important prose or dramatic writer. Not only is a good stage lyricist (implicitly and explicitly) a dramatist, he or she must dramatize in rhyme, paying heed not merely to the meter of the music to which lyrics are written but to any number of other, equally valid and necessary, concerns: The shape and body and rhythm and color of the lines, the mindset and point of view of the singer or singers, where inner-rhyme is or is not appropriate to the character and the situation, and a myriad of additional technical and poetic matters over which few librettists (and no poet) need worry and without which a song, and thus a dramatic or comic moment, lives or dies. Nowhere in Sheldon Harnick’s considerable output will you find a false step along these lines.

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Although most of his earliest songs were satirical in nature and reactions to or against then-ubiquitous popular forms, suitable to revue, and while he quickly adapted to the more stringent demands of the musical play, Harnick’s acute and idiosyncratic sense of humor has remained a vital part of his output. Think, for instance, of the audacity of risking, as he did in “When Messiah Comes” (1964), the activation of still-fresh thoughts of the Shoah in his audiences:

And I spoke to God and said,
“Would that be fair,
If Messiah came,
And there was no one there?”

Or the hero of She Loves Me, in “Tango Tragique,” attempting to dissuade the heroine not to continue waiting for the mysterious rendezvous he alone knows is actually himself by warning her that her anonymous romantic vis-à-vis could turn out to be a homicidal maniac:

Her left leg, floating in a local brook
They never did find the rest of her,
Or her book…

Barbara Cook in

The great Barbara Cook as Amalia in “She Loves Me.”

Yet Harnick can, within moments, turn from the darkly risible to the infinitely touching, as when the same young woman, waiting in a restaurant for the lonely hearts correspondent who has stood her up can sing (without, the lyricist was pleased to note, a trace of self-pity) a verse that could melt the hardest heart:

Charming, romantic,
The perfect café.
Then, as if it isn’t bad enough,
A violin starts to play…

Oh, the perfect placement of that heartbreaking “as if it isn’t bad enough”!

It is generally recognized that She Loves Me contains the finest work, both of Harnick and of his best composer, Jerry Bock (even if it was sadly under-appreciated at the time of its all-too-brief 1963 Broadway run) just as it has become a commonplace to state that the team’s work in Fiddler is merely passable, buoyed along by the overall brilliance of the original production. And this is not simply a case of over-familiarity with a classic show; those remarks were being made 50 years ago(!) as well. I beg to differ. No musical with an indifferent score could scale the artistic heights of a Fiddler, and not even a Jerome Robbins could create high art out of mediocre material. No, Fiddler on the Roof is treasurable as much because of its beautiful, and beautifully integrated, score as it is for Robbins’ overall conception and staging. Or, for that matter, Boris Aronson’s superb, Chagall-inspired sets, or Patricia Zipprodt’s cunningly designed costumes, or even Zero Mostel’s indelible originating performance as Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye. The songs — music and lyrics — not only set the tone and elucidate the almost overwhelming emotions the show generates as it goes along; they also define character as clearly and concisely and exuberantly as Joseph Stein’s book, and provide an almost infinite variety of response, from excitement to laughter to rapturous joy to achingly expressed heartbreak. As Harnick said in 1971, he knew who Sholem Alecihem’s people were, and where their lives and concerns intersected with his. This transcendent commingling may make for more direct emotional connection and less showy lyrical panache, but simplicity of thought and feeling, expressed in heartfelt terms, matters (at least in this case) more than complex rhyme schemes and wittily expressed erudition. If you think writing an immediately graspable lyric for two parents watching their oldest child marry, or for a man writhing in the most acute confusion of love and betrayal, is easy, you try it. Let’s see if what you come up with is better than what Harnick achieved in “Sunrise, Sunset” and “Chavaleh.”

The

The “Fiddler” team: Sheldon Harnick, Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Jerome Robbins.

Harnick’s first important Broadway credit was as composer and lyricist of “The Boston Beguine,” featured in the otherwise rather creatively barren New Faces of 1952, where it was performed with comic brio and impeccable musicianship by Alice Ghostley. It was Harnick’s special genius to sense something innately humorous about the beguine itself which, coupled with his hilarious topical verses, made for a deliciously self-conscious parody with a tincture of social disgust:

We went to The Casbah
That’s an Irish bar there;
The underground hideout
Of the D.A.R. there…

“The Boston Beguine”: Alice Ghostley in full cry.

Seven years later, at 35, Harnick was the co-recipient of both a Tony and a Pulitzer for Fiorello! This was not his first collaboration with Jerry Bock — the unsuccessful The Body Beautiful a year earlier constituted their debut as a team — but it was the project that cemented their partnership. A George Abbott show in the venerable Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition of the well-made/integrated-musical, its score exhibits Bock’s almost uncanny ability to capture in his modern songs the style and sound of a different era (a quality he shares with the equally adept John Kander) as well as Hanick’s superb gift for felicitous comic and dramatic writing.

The protean Tom Bosley inspires the working poor in

The protean Tom Bosley inspires the working poor in “Fiorello!”

Fiorello! lacks a critical eye toward its subject, and it’s telling that the star, Tom Bosley, was nominated, with Howard Da Silva, as “Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical” (Bosely won.) LaGuardia is less compelling a figure than the characters around him, like Da Silva’s Republican ward-heeler Ben, Fiorello’s eventual second wife Marie (Patricia Wilson) and the secondary comic roles (Pat Stanley, Nathaniel Frey.) Where Harnick shines especially is in his wry satirical songs, led by Da Silva. In “Politics and Poker,” Ben and his hack cronies don’t even interrupt their marathon card game as they consider which straw-man might serve as a guaranteed loser. (When Laguardia wins, they’re comically stunned: “The Bum Won.”) And in their gleeful second act commentary on the Walker administration’s public scandals (“Little Tin Box”) Harnick indulges in a savvy, and very funny, nod to W.S. Gilbert. When the hacks re-enact testimony by Walker’s corrupt officials, the lyrics include some riotously effective choral repetitions:

Ben: I can see Your Honor doesn’t pull his punches
And it looks a trifle fishy, I’ll admit
But for one whole week I went without my lunches
And it mounted up, Your Honor, bit by bit.

Hacks: Up Your Honor, bit by bit…

A lovely, “Just a Song at Twilight”-inspired First World War reverie (“‘Til Tomorrow”) and a raucous period campaign number (“Gentleman Jimmy”) exhibit the team’s remarkable ability to refract period melodic and lyric sentiment through the prism of the present. And near the end of the show Marie, disappointed once again by LaGuardia, has an effective, angry comic number (“The Very Next Man”) which, alas, suffers from an appallingly (and, for Harnick, rare) insensitive release:

And if he likes me,
Who cares how frequently he strikes me?
I’ll fetch his slippers with my arm in a sling,
Just for the privilege of wearing his ring.

Bock and Harnick’s follow-up for Abbott, Tenderloin, was also a musical about New York’s past, but a disappointment coming from the team that created Fiorello! Still, the score contains some splendid songs, notably the deliberately sentimental pop-ballad “Artificial Flowers,” another swipe at cronyism (“How the Money Changes Hands”) and a peerlessly funny musical-hall take on a young woman’s falling into prostitution. “The Picture of Happiness” should be offensive, but it’s too giddy and amiable to spark ill will, with a chorus whose reversal makes you grin with happy surprise:

Since that lecherous bounder
Got ’round her and led her astray,
She’s the picture of happiness,
Laughin’ and singin’ all day…

Daniel Massey with Barbara Cook in

Daniel Massey with Barbara Cook in “She Loves Me.” When he leaves she’ll burst into the funny, moving, rapturous “Ice Cream.”

They needn’t have felt too depressed by Tenderloin‘s failure; She Loves Me was next and, despite its heartbreakingly brief run (354 performances) yielded one of the most glorious scores in the history of American musical theatre and, I would argue, the field’s greatest set of songs for a romantic comedy. MGM Records must have understood this when it released a rare, 2-LP Original Cast Album for the show. Like Columbia’s 1957 Candide, it’s largely that recording that kept She Loves Me alive in the hearts of those who loved it, and I don’t think it contains a song, a note or a lyric line that could be improved upon.

Based on the same Miklós László play that also inspired the glorious 1940 Ernst Lubitch/Samson Raphaelson charmer The Shop Around the Corner (and, later, the modern variant You’ve Got Mail) the show details the antagonism of two parfumerie clerks who are, ironically, passionate correspondents in a postal romance. If we are to judge the Fiddler songs against those in She Loves Me, the former does pale, but that is surely no sin; it’s a bit like comparing The Iceman Cometh unfavorably with Long Day’s Journey into Night. In this case, if there is a single reason why the latter trumps the former, it lies in the freedom Bock and Harnick were given by Joe Masteroff’s lovely book to rhapsodize, and illuminate, a superb collection of characters. In Fiddler, the canvas is at once broader and more intimate, the songs illustrating either a community’s focus or the specific emotions of an extended family. With She Loves Me, the creators were presented, aside from the feuding lovers, with no fewer than five important supporting characters, plus a proud maître d’ and a clutch of increasingly frantic holiday shoppers. The opportunities for individual musical elaboration were, therefore, multiplied: Bock and Harnick were free to compose numbers, not merely for the ironic lovers Georg and Amalia, but for the rueful old shop-owner, an avid delivery boy, a narcissistic Lothario, his self-abnegating paramour, and a frightened, equivocating clerk as well. This panoply provides a nearly obscene amount of possibility for richness, and the team delivers on them in spectacular fashion.

Barbara Baxley and Barbara Cook performing their sweetly character-driven musical counterpoint,

Barbara Baxley and Barbara Cook performing their sweetly character-driven musical counterpoint, “I Don’t Know His Name.”

There’s a charming, bittersweet, reflective waltz for Mr. Maraczek (“Days Gone By); a cosmic justification of cowardice for Sipos (“Perspective”); an energetic plea for the ambitious young Arpad (“Try Me”); a sardonic, lightly threatening, straw-hat-and-cane farewell for Kodaly (“Grand Knowing You”); and, in addition to a pair of perceptive, self-mocking duets (“Ilona” and “I Don’t Know His Name”), no fewer than two great musical monologues for the hapless Ilona (“I Resolve” and “A Tip to the Library”) that limn the descending and ascending arcs of her romantic aspirations. All that plus a cantata for harried holiday shoppers (“Twelve Days to Christmas”) that is the last word on the madness of the guilt-ridden acquisitiveness of the season, and one hilariously knowing paean to the restaurateur’s pride in everything but the food in his establishment (“A Romantic Atmosphere.”)

And that’s not even mentioning the numbers for Amalia and Georg, each either explicating romantic terrors or celebrating heightened, ecstatic emotion: Georg’s “Tonight at Eight” and Amalia’s “Will He Like Me?” illuminate the shyness and trepidation of epistolary lovers about to meet in the flesh; Amalia’s heart-rending yet emotionally controlled “Dear Friend” and her ambivalent, rapturous “Ice Cream”; Georg’s darkly comic attempt to forestall the girl’s disappointment (the aforementioned “Tango Tragique”) and his exhilarated (and exhilarating) title song; and a finale for both which, for romantic suppleness and tender understatement simply cannot be, and has not been, bettered in the 51 years since She Loves Me debuted.

The sheer variety of the voices on that small stage must also have both constricted and broadened the swath of the team’s options. There was, first, the spectacular range and flexibility of their Amalia in Barbara Cook’s crystalline lyric soprano, surely every Broadway songwriter’s dream voice at the time. Then the less supple but innately musical phrasing of Daniel Massey’s Georg. Next, the big, stunning histrionic sweep of their Kolday, Jack Cassidy. Even those in the cast with more modest abilities, like Barbara Baxley (Ilona) and Nathaniel Frey (Sipos) presented opportunities to express character in surprising and delightful ways, if only as a self-imposed challenge to stretch the voices without breaking them entirely. A cast of more strikingly individual sound would be hard to conjure.

APPLETREE_cast_phA

The primary cast of “The Apple Tree”: Larry Blyden, Alan Alda and the phenomenal Barbara Harris.

The team’s official successor to Fiddler (as a favor to Hal Prince, they contributed several un-credited songs for the Sherlock Holmes musical Baker Street) was problematic: Three mini-musicals, adapted from short stories (Mark Twain’s “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” Frank Stockton’s “The Lady or the Tiger”) and a comic-strip fable (Jules Feiffer’s “Passionella” which, interestingly, also inspired a version by Harnick’s friend Stephen Sondheim, for The World of Jules Feiffer) that, pieced together and directed by Mike Nichols, did not quite equal one wholly satisfying show. Still, the score is splendid, revealing the lyricist in many moods: Satirical, romantic, self-consciously “epic,” whimsical. And, despite its relative disappointment, it still ran longer than She Loves Me.

Hal Linden in

Hal Linden in “The Rothschilds.”

Bock and Harnick’s last show together — and Bock’s last work of consequence — was The Rothschilds. It was a modest success (505 performances… note that even the run still managed to eke past that of She Loves Me!) but the score, taken on its own, is as fine as Fiddler‘s and would be a great score in any season. Of particular brilliance are the observational and historical numbers (“Have You Ever Seen a Prettier Little Congress,” “Stability”) given to Keene Curtis, who deservedly took a Tony for his several performances within the show. Those songs are as rich, and as pointed, as anything the team ever produced: Angry yet witty, expansive, melodically complex, lyrically vast. And with “In My Own Lifetime,” a yearning anthem performed by Hal Linden as the paterfamilias Meyer, Harnick’s gift for gentle, anxious hope in the face of oppression reaches a kind of apogee, the emotional companion-piece to Fiddler‘s “Anatkevka”:

While I’m still here, I want to know
Beyond a doubt,
That no one can lock us in,
Or lock us out…
I want to know I haven’t built on sand
In my own lifetime.

Sheldon Harnick is very much with us still, crafting new lyrics (and occasionally composing as well), even preforming a bit, his distinctive and remarkably fluid vocal style scarcely dimmed by time. (Listen to his beautiful renditions of “Precious Little,” “The Pears of Anjou” and, especially, the glorious “We’re a Family” on the Harbinger set.) If you want to be charmed, tickled, becalmed and moved in equal measure, you’ve only to turn to his best work which, I suspect, will prove as resilient and enduring as the man who created it. Perhaps even — dare I say it? — eternal.

One master looks at another: Harnick by Hirschfeld.

One master looks at another: Harnick by Hirschfeld.

Lyric copyrights: Sheldon Harnick

Al other text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross