By Scott Ross
“To be on the wire is life. The rest is waiting.” — Karl Wallenda, quoted in All That Jazz
(Warning: Memory ahead.)
Bob 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 then-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.)
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, lifted from Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin follow-up The Last of Mr. Norris.) I didn’t know, not having yet discovered Isherwood’s books, or the details of his life, how much more closely Cabaret on film dovetailed with his original stories, 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, with Michael York’s Isherwoodesque physiognomy.
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 own amusement over the movie’s homosexual implications.
The less personal, 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 both Sally Bowles’ (Minnelli) and her erstwhile beau Brian Roberts’ (York) sexual involvement 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!
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; disappointingly, it went un-answered.) A trained jazz dancer, Scott seemed to me the perfect masculine embodiment of the Fosse style. And my own psyche was no less Art-and-Beauty orientated than Fosse’s, save that his concentration was on the female of the species.
Then, in the winter of 1980, All That Jazz. A movie that obsessed me to such a degree that, as stage manager of a little theatre 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!”
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.
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.
So, Bob Fosse: One of the handful of true American originals, and a repository of show-biz tropes that, yoked to what he saw as 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.
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.” Yet, 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, alas, 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 my own chronic condition, coupled with 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 of neurotic dissipation can do that to you.
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 — and for far, only — exposure 30 years ago. Although I didn’t care a great deal for Lenny (Dustin Hoffman is a poor substitute for Lenny Bruce), 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 through spring clover 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, watches, helpless and terrified.
Wasson too, despite his avowed adoration of movie musicals, seems curiously loathe to approach homosexuality in any direct manner. Which I suppose is my quaint manner of implying he is heterosexual, and uneasy. But 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 one-time husband, 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 AIDS virus.
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.
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.
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 (let alone Redhead or Sweet Charity) 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 reproduce 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 four movies is available for perusal, and rife for commentary.
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 what has been done with Fosse’s choreography, and his shows, subsequently: The popular revue Fosse, say, which while preserving his choreography also misinterpreted and diminished it. Or the phenomenally popular “stripped-down” Chicago revival, little more than an elaborately 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 (if massively popular) movie version, made by people (such as Craig Zadan) with impeccable backgrounds in musical theatre who nonetheless felt the need to “explain” why the movie had musical numbers. If you have to create a 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 more self-regarding 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. (What was Fosse doing, then, before 1966?) Or 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 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 with a different woman 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 necessarily make his accomplishments deathish.
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 more often 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 what really matters.
Everything else is just marking time.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross
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.
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.
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. If he could have added lisps, he would have. 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.
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 Silver Age.
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.
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?)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 movie 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.
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
By Scott Ross
“For everything you have missed, you have gained something else, and for everything you gain, you lose something else.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
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.*
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. Aronson placed Tevye’s home in a central position; above it he depicted a semi-circle of upside-down houses, and around it several more, representing Anatevka. Like the figure of the Fiddler himself, they are precariously balanced — even topsy-turvy — but they hold.
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 deficiency.) 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,” Lisa Solomon reports that Jewison wanted the production designer Robert F. Boyle’s original 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.
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 Anatekva’s 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 eldest, Tzeitl.
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 (if 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 while 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.†
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 “Anatevka.” I’ll wait.
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 inordinate 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 cluttered up a 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 — indeed, its soul — 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 grumbles greeted Norma Crane’s Golde, although Kael did complain that the role was under-written. Perhaps. But so is everyone’s, aside from Tevye; after all, the show is not called Hello, Golde! What Crane achieves in her 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.
As Tzeitl, the eldest of the three marriageable daughters (the youngest pair are marginal) the curiously 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 lingers in your memory 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 an important 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.
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.‡
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.
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.
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.
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 does have 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 forms 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.
* 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) and thus expecting to meet much older man. Topol, who had succeeded Bomba Zur as Tevye 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, as his inflections in the latter tend to Anglicized pronunciation: “You may ahsk” rather than “You may ask.”
‡Glaser/Perchik lost out on 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 You as Paul Reiser’s father Burt. From conductor of pogroms to befuddled Jewish pater familias — that’s one hell of a range.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross
By Scott Ross
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 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.
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.
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…
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:
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.”
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…
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.
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:
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
Lyric copyrights by Sheldon Harnick
All other text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross
By Scott Ross
By critical consensus at least, Long Day’s Journey into Night ranks as the Great American Play. But one needn’t necessarily be a critic, or susceptible to the official canon, to attain reverence for Eugene O’Neill’s ultimate (in both senses of the word) cri-de-couer. One need only read or — preferably — see it.
Autobiography abounds in our native theatre, of course, whether by hint or inference. Seldom, however, has an American playwright drawn so extensively on his own past and family as O’Neill does here, nor to such coruscating effect. Although it may be argued quite convincingly that the author is not as hard on himself, via his dramatic alter ego, as he is on his mother, father and older brother, there is supple evidence that he did not let himself entirely off the piercing hook on which he transfixes the wriggling, doomed, damned Tyrones — who are all the more pitiably human in that they know precisely how doomed, and damned, they are.
Before his Parkinson’s-like cerebellar cortical atrophy completely debilitated him, O’Neill somehow managed to complete More Stately Mansions, A Touch of the Poet, A Moon for the Misbegotten, The Iceman Cometh and this, his masterwork, all between 1939 and 1942. Such a prodigious — indeed, Herculean — undertaking is commensurate, if in a smaller way, to Shakespeare’s comparable achievement. And this during a time in which the playwright had been largely ignored, if not exactly forgotten, by most of his contemporaries. Had his own wishes in the matter of publication been adhered to, his late masterwork might not have been discovered until 1979. (Imagine!) Thankfully, O’Neill’s widow, the formidable Carlotta Monterey, ignored her husband’s instructions, and the first production of Long Day’s Journey made its appearance in America a mere three years after his death, the same year its director, José Quintero, mounted his production of Iceman, re-establishing it as a somewhat ponderous yet undeniable force and spearheading O’Neill’s redemptive posthumous rediscovery.
Long Day’s Journey into Night, “this old work of sorrow, written in tears and blood,” as the playwright described it in his dedication of the manuscript to Carlotta, is an act both of excoriation and extirpation. Even, if you like, of exorcism, although I doubt attempting to forgive his family in this manner for its many sins, both of omission and commission (a fine distinction for a lapsed Catholic like O’Neill) was entirely or even partially successful. Some psychic wounds are simply too firmly embedded ever to be eradicated. Nowhere near as ambitious, formally, as Iceman, the play is nevertheless entirely successful, and satisfying, on its own less expansive palette and in its comparatively smaller virtues. Indeed, more successful; its very autobiographical specificity allows it to achieve something beyond the O’Neill of The Iceman Cometh. From the parochial — a family in perpetual Strindbergian combat — Long Day’s Journey into Night emerges, finally, as wholly universal.
There has been some careless talk of turning the play into an opera but this, if not sacrilegious, is surely redundant. O’Neill may not have become the poet of his youthful ambitions (his stand-in, Edmund, remarks, when father James suggests he has the makings of a poet, “No, I’m afraid I’m like the guy who is always panhandling for a smoke. He hasn’t even got the makings. He’s got only the habit.”) but he certainly had the innate musicality. The play itself is operatic, both in its length and its breadth, but the four individuals in it form an intimate chamber ensemble of a twisting complexity that breaks the boundaries of formalization: Here a quartet, there a series of duets; now a solo-act, then further duets; later another trio and finally, devastatingly, a quartet once more. And in each movement the same recriminations and self-delusions are raised, the same accusations aired and hurts inflicted, the same apologies given, the same uneasy truces reached, and tremulously maintained. Less perhaps a string quartet then, than an endless battle fought among four armies of one, none of its generals ever admitting ultimate defeat or surrender, each limping off to lick his or her wounds before (to use O’Neill’s words) stammering and stumbling on to the next bloody engagement. The parts, too, as with the best dramatic work, are orchestral, ranging between winds and strings, the players themselves alternating in protean fashion on first one instrument and then another: Sonorous tubas exchange themselves for keening oboes or whingeing bassoons as mood dictates. Or are these four antagonists polymorphous/polyphonic singers, basso-profundo giving way to lyric soprano, tenor and baritone to alto?
You’ll have to excuse my employment of some very mixed metaphors; this play, like the greatest works of art, has a way of making you thinks in those terms, knowing that mere descriptive prose can never begin to do the job. “I couldn’t touch what I tried to tell you just now,” Edmund says to James, in the exchange cited above. “I just stammered. That’s the best I’ll ever do, I mean, if I live.”
O’Neill himself does not stammer here, if his characters occasionally do. Journey is not Iceman, where the bluntness of the argument (and the bibulousness of its speakers) militates against poetic expression. The participants here are at once more intimate and more estranged, and the dialogue reflects the intelligence of the Tyrones as well as the parameters of their various educations. Mary, the mother, has only her convent schooling; father James, a once-celebrated actor, has at least absorbed the texts of his beloved Shakespeare; the sons, Jamie and Edmund, have their Harvard experience and the realist/romantic verses of the poets Jamie once held dear, whom Edmund still does and of whom his older brother now despairs. While the lines they speak are too prosaic in themselves to soar as O’Neill may have wished, the total effect of them is of a great epic poem of aching melancholy, its author (again in Edmund’s words) mastering a “faithful realism, at least.” And as he goes on, “Stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people.” O’Neill here is their greatest, non-stammering, stammerer.
Although I have seen the 1962 movie adaptation four or five times since my early 20s and never, alas, the play itself, I have never been as moved by it as I was while watching it again last night. Anyone, of any age past, say, early adolescence can grasp Long Day’s Journey into Night at least in part, just as a person of 14 or 15 might enjoy Waiting for Godot for its wit or even possibly for a certain nihilistic cynicism; there is, after all, no one as romantic, or as cynical, as a teenager. But you have, I think, to have lived long enough, and been broken enough times on the rack, to feel the full and anguished weight of the thing.
What the film’s producer, Ely Laundau (later the founder of the American Film Theatre) and its director, Sidney Lumet, accomplished goes far beyond merely transmogrifying a great play to the more immediately realistic strata of the movies. While there was some, slight, editing of the text about which the purist might reasonably quibble, I don’t see how anyone could argue against the cast, a quartet of exceedingly rare sublimity. Seldom has a movie, let alone a play, been so suffused with crystalline greatness in its principals.
Katharine Hepburn was somewhat in flux in the early 1960s. She’d reached that dangerous age, Over Forty, at which not even the greatest of her contemporaries, Bette Davis, hoped for much. She’d been doing a lot of Shakespeare on stage, and not many movies, and the astonishing beauty she had conveyed from the early ’30s was, inevitably, waning. With what gratitude must she have ripped into Mary Tyrone! There is no vanity in her performance, no special pleading other than Mary’s own. Indeed, there are moments when Lumet and his extraordinary cinematographer, Boris Kaufman, make her look (and in close-ups!) positively, and shockingly, ugly. That’s a calculated move, I suspect; Mary repeatedly bemoans how haggard she’s become with age, and we may sit back in disbelief thinking, “But she’s exquisite!” Those shots, then, have the power of a shock-cut. More, the overwhelming blow of truth: No woman of 55, not even Katharine Hepburn, can fully escape the ravishes of time. Moreover, since it is Mary’s quarter-century of morphine addiction that is the corroded heart of the matter in the play, some physical deterioration simply has to be accommodated.
Hepburn’s rightness is not merely one of physiognomy. If you’ll forgive another musical metaphor, Hepburn plays Mary like a cello: Adagio at the start, agitato creeping in; breaking the surface with shattering rubato, then temporizing, modulating, rallentando; a space of religioso here, a smattering of maestoso there; a burst of presto followed by an uncanny largo — and always, always, non troppo. She does not tip her hand. It is only gradually that Hepburn reveals the extent of Mary’s addiction, and its hold on her moods. (Her deep love for, and concern about, Edmund is plain, but simmers with resentment, as it was his difficult birth that put her on the path toward the hop.) While agitated, especially when dancing around the topic of Edmund’s possible tuberculosis, Hepburn hints at the volcano, seemingly dormant, but pulls back before it can activate. When she finally explodes, as she must, the effect is shattering, as when, at luncheon, in the midst of a bitter denunciation of the quacks who led her down the vertiginous track to dope-fiendom, she suddenly hurls crockery to the floor with both hands on the line, “I hate doctors!” In a long career of great performances, I don’t think she ever did finer work than she does here.
The same is true of Ralph Richardson’s James Tyrone. For an heroic actor with a voice whose distinction was only slightly less than that of his great coeval, John Gielgud’s, Richardson was cursed with a face whose plainness was his gravest disappointment. And while he made far too few movies, those in which he stars benefit immeasurably from his presence. As fine an entertainment as Carol Reed and Grahame Green’s The Fallen Idol (1948), for example, would be infinitely less without him — perhaps even unthinkable. His James Tyrone is, as it were, the worm’s-eye view of the man; yet for all his pettiness of spirit, mean constriction of mind and (explicable if not salutary) miserliness, we sense as well the dignity of James, his buried kindness, and the potential greatness of the actor whom Edwin Booth once praised and who, but for the wickedly gleaming lure of a sure-fire financial success (never named but surely the same Count of Monte Cristo whose massive receipts made James O’Neill even as it imprisoned him) might have rivaled, or even surpassed, his mentor in artistry. Richardson is magnificent.
Jason Robards, Jr. was Jamie in the 1956 American premiere, and reprises his defining performance here, hard on the heels of his resplendent Hickey in the Lumet-directed NET production of Iceman. (He would later portray the somewhat older, even more dissipated Jamie, in the 1973 A Moon for the Misbegotten revival.) Whether or not Robards’ interpretation of the role had deepened or changed in the six years between productions I leave to those who saw both. On the screen, however, he is electrifying. Trite encomium, but none else will do. For Robards, like Hepburn (and indeed their co-stars) builds slowly, although Jamie’s disgust — at himself as much as his familial relations — is present from the beginning; it needs only the long-delayed lubrication of an epic inebriated tear to liberate itself fully. Jamie is not being disingenuous when he proclaims, in the explosive fourth act, his endearing love for Edmund, and his barely concealed hatred and jealousy. That both emotions reside in the same, despairing and disparaged, heart makes Jamie among the most fully-developed characters in modern drama, and Robards anatomizes these ever-warring, obsessive, sentiments with the skill of a surgeon and the agonized passion of only the greatest actors. He is equally effective in open misery as he is in bitter cynicism; when Mary makes her final descent (in both senses of that word) Jamie’s caustic, “The Mad Scene. Enter Ophelia!” is at once appalling and utterly comprehensible. He deserves both the slap he receives from Edmund and the reward for honest endurance of the insupportable which, for him, will never be forthcoming.
Dean Stockwell is, among the four, the most tragic figure. I mean by this not his role as O’Neill’s stand-in but the stunning way in which, after this exceptional performance, his film career all but dried up, and that on the heels not only of Edmund but of well-regarded work in Sons and Lovers (1960) and both the stage and screen versions of Meyer Levin’s Leopold and Loeb play Compulsion. (In the latter, incidentally, he appeared with another highly gifted young actor whose mature years were largely unremarkable, Bradford Dillman. In an interesting coincidence, Dillman was Edmund in the March-Eldridge Long Day’s Journey, and would later make a superb Willie Oban in the 1973 American Film Theatre version of The Iceman Cometh.) Unique among former child actors, Stockwell blossomed in his 20s; by contrast, it would take the splendid Roddy McDowall, six years Dean’s senior (and his Compulsion co-star on the stage), far longer to be taken seriously… although McDowall’s later career would prove far rosier, and richer, than Stockwell’s.
The young actor is just about everything one could wish of an Edmund Tyrone. His diminutive stature, as well as his good looks, which teeter on the brink of prettiness, make it instantly clear why he is doted upon, and protected, by the family. “Mama’s baby, Papa’s pet,” Jamie sneers at him, just as Mary more than once reminds Edmund that he is a baby, and wants to be petted and fussed over. What neither his mother nor his brother quite grasps but which the seemingly oblivious elder James does, is that Edmund is far from infantile. At 24 he is already a veteran of wanderlust, an avid sailor whose fondest memories are of being lost to himself on the sea, and a would-be suicide (in a flophouse that would serve as the model for Harry Hope’s saloon in The Iceman Cometh and in which the more mature O’Neill will locate a mother-ridden young man who will complete the act his real-life counterpart could not.) Himself only slightly older than Edmund in the play, Stockwell exhibits an astonishing, heartbreaking hold on the character. He is at once boyish and wise (or, as he and Jamie would have it, “wised-up”), striver and defeatist, a man-child for whom the future holds both infinite possibility and a crushing weight of guilt and resentment for which this, his magnum opus, will be only partial expiation. It’s all there in Stockwell’s precocious performance. See this, and weep for the artistic promise that was, inexplicably, never fulfilled.
The movie of Long’s Day’s Journey into Night was not a success at the box-office (total receipts: $500,000) but the entire cast deservedly received the Best Actor and Actress Awards that year at Cannes, and Hepburn was further nominated for an Academy Award®, although they all ought to have been. The film was cut after its release from 174 minutes to 134, and even now its “restored” version only runs 170. At least in the current edition there is some mention of the brother the older Jamie may or may not have deliberately infected, who died in infancy and the mention of whose name hits one with the force of a thunderclap: Dear God, what could O’Neill have meant by naming that baby Eugene! That he is saying, with the nihilists Heine and Nietzsche, that the best of all fates is never to have been born? (Or, having done so, exiting as quickly as possible.) That the playwright wished, on some level, it had been himself who was spared the burden of life, and of relation to this family?
Throughout, Lumet directs with the acute sensitivity that would make him one of our finest, and most humane, filmmakers. He does not obtrude. He observes, with heart and mind wide open, the vengeful perambulations of the Tyrones, never editorializing yet also never missing a beat either of their love for each other or their perfectly aimed barbs of psychic murderousness. Kaufman’s photography is luminous, both shadowed and razor-sharp, and reaches a kind of breathtaking apogee in Mary’s final, morphine dream monologue wherein the camera pulls further and further back as darkness envelopes (to quote once again from O’Neill’s dedication) “all the four haunted Tyrones.” There is nothing, at this point, that James, Jamie or Edmund can do but either ignore her, or watch, helplessly, as she moves father away from them. The fog has swallowed them all. Yet, shockingly, just at the height (or depth) of Mary’s opiate-induced transcendence, Lumet and Kaufman return to a sudden close-up Hepburn’s face as the dream-state begins to end and reality comes roaring back. The unexpected edit brings us all — the Tyrones, and those who watch them, as fascinated as children gazing at the frenzied beats of a butterfly impaled on a board — back to the soul-crushing truth of lives hopelessly burdened by a past they can neither change nor forget, for the play’s final, devastating lines: “Then in the spring something happened to me. Yes, I remember. I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.”
How perfect the choice of those last three words! Fond memory succeeded, hard on, by a dying fall, like the emotional obverse of Tennessee Williams’ “Sometimes — there’s God — so quickly!” Obliterating light, and hope, and the promise of a dawn that, gathered up in indifferent fog (neither annealing nor malign but merely obliterative) will now never come. O’Neill may not have become the lyric poet of his aspirations, but he found an instinctive, naïve, native poetry in the everyday. And although the ending of this, his supreme effort, is unutterably, ineffably sad, yet it is also, like the play itself, cause for celebration. Muted, perhaps, and acclaimed by a voice made ragged with weeping, but the hard-won cheer is the most cherished of all, and the most deeply felt.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross
By Scott Ross
If, as I believe, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night is the great American play, his The Iceman Cometh vies with very few fellow contenders for a most respectable second place. And if family is the great subject of 20th century American dramatists, there is no family play that can touch Long Day’s Journey in its merciless yet pitying dissection of the means by which our immediate relations shape, and misshape, us, and the unshakable, death-grip hold they exert on us: How, even when we comprehend, and confront, the psychic murders parents and children visit on one another, we are unable to fully forgive, let alone forget, them.
While the nuclear unit is not the dramatic center of The Iceman Cometh, family is never very far from the surface. The denizens of Harry Hope’s saloon themselves form an uneasy, shifting, kind of family, made up largely of disaffected brothers and eccentric uncles, with Harry himself the predictably mercurial pater familias. And for many of these men, some sort of familial uncoupling forms the basis of dipsomania. Larry Slade, the “old foolosopher,” a one-time Anarchist, claims he’s long finished with the movement, yet it was his ultimately untenable involvement with young Don Parritt’s mother, rather than the movement per se, that soured him on his youthful pipe-dream of political upheaval. Parritt himself, who looks to Larry as a potential father-figure, has betrayed the movement to the police for a mess of pottage, ostensibly for money but really to get back at his indifferent mom, that self-same paragon of the movement who so effectively killed Larry’s activism. The one-time “brilliant law student” Willie Oban was likewise undone by the arrest and imprisonment of his bucket-shop proprietor father, and Jimmy Tomorrow pretends the cause of his bibulousness was his wife’s infidelity when it is far more likely that the reverse was true: That it was he, not her, who was unfaithful. Even “The General” and “The Captain,” old Boer War antagonists now inseparable companions in methomania, have been disowned by their families at home, while Harry deludes himself that he has withdrawn from life outside due to his great love for his (conveniently) dead wife Bessie, in reality a nagging termagant he could barely stand. And Hickey, whose arrival is so widely anticipated — and whose sudden reversal of persona is just as avidly despaired of — has finally reached the limit of his capacity to torture, and be tormented by, his endlessly forgiving wife Evelyn. If a happy Tolstoyean family lurks in the background of any of the habitués of Harry Hope’s saloon, the playwright hasn’t been moved to recall it. And what O’Neill doesn’t get around to discussing, and in detail, likely doesn’t exist.
O’Neill generally (and Iceman most specifically) can feel like strong medicine, even to his admirers. For Arthur Miller, himself no slouch in the practice of heavy-handedness, O’Neill “is a very insensitive writer. There’s no finesse at all: he’s the Dreiser of the stage. He writes with heavy pencils.” Pauline Kael classified Iceman as “the greatest thesis play in the American theatre.” And Kenneth Tynan was absolutely correct when he noted of it, “Paul Valery once defined a true snob as a man who was afraid to admit that he was bored when he was bored; and he would be a king of snobs indeed who failed to admit to a mauvais quart d’heure about halfway through The Iceman Cometh.”
Indeed, I avoided both reading and seeing Iceman for decades, for precisely the reasons explicated above. Well, that and its 4-hour length, which cowed me. But no one who considers himself a playwright, or a critic, has any business avoiding O’Neill, or this play, indefinitely. Despite its obviousness, its insensitivity, its longueurs, its lack of poetry and its undeniable position as a thesis play, The Iceman Cometh is, somehow, indispensable. It says little, and at great length and volubility, and one can argue endlessly about whether O’Neill is averring that human beings need their pipe-dreams in order to live (Kael) or that the specificity of a barroom/flophouse filled with alcoholic bums invalidates its universality (Tynan.) I would say that O’Neill is not necessarily claiming anything for everyone but that, if he was, it is that pipe-dreams are less what allow us to face the impossibilities of life as they are the inevitable run-off of personal guilt and the fantasies permitting those who feel themselves failures to believe in some sort of hope, however tenuous or unattainable, for the future.
O’Neill premiered Iceman in 1946, with a production starring James Barton that was both unappreciated and puzzled over, and which ran only briefly; it took another decade for the play to be rediscovered, in the popular Circle Rep re-staging by José Quintero. And while there is as yet no “definitive,” complete video rendering of this unwieldy, occasionally stupefying but undeniably powerful dramatic cantata, two exceptional, if slightly abridged, editions were, thankfully, preserved for posterity. The first, Sidney Lumet’s 1960 video staging, produced by the nascent public broadcasting entity National Educational Television (NET) would be notable if only for its capturing of Jason Robards, Jr.’s universally acclaimed characterization of Hickey but is, despite its visual limitations, much more than merely a showcase for a great actor’s defining performance. The second, John Frankenheimer’s 1973 movie for the short-lived subscription series American Film Theatre, while lacking Robards, has a visual palette far richer and gives us as well, in a uniformly superb cast, the final performances of two great American actors.
Since the play is at base a contest between Larry and Hickey, the casting of the two roles is crucial. About Hickey, more anon. But in its Larry, the AFT production has the decided edge in Robert Ryan. Then 59 — and, although he did not know it during the filming, dying — this greatest of unheralded American actors gives the performance of a lifetime. The movie camera helps, of course, but what is written on Ryan’s craggy, lived-in face is unique to him. As a lifelong leftist, the role of a former anarchist drowning in his bitterness must have held great appeal, but Ryan also brought to the movie the experience of his performance as James Tyrone opposite Geraldine Fitzgerald in a Long Day’s Journey revival, so his O’Neill bona fides are secure. He lends a gentleness, and a grace, to Larry that is absent in Myron McCormick’s effective but more obvious 1960 reading; in Ryan, the warring impulses of instinctive pity and a desperate desire to an indifference he cannot feel are as absolute, and as heartrending, as his conflicting hope for, and fear of, “the big sleep” of death.
Crucial too to the 1973 edition too is the Harry Hope of Fredric March. One of the most important actors of his time, March was a popular matinee idol (A Star is Born), twice an Academy Award® winner (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Best Years of Our Lives) and, latterly, the creator of James Tyrone in the 1956 premiere, following O’Neill’s death, of Long Day’s Journey. At 76, March plays the 60 year-old Harry with rare gusto, his malleable face stretching from the slackness of both bottomless self-pity and irritable garrulity to the infectious grin of devilish (and innately sadistic) merriment that make it instantly clear why, aside from his largesse with liquor, the denizens of what Larry calls “The Bottom of the Sea Rathskeller” adore him and put up with his periodic grousing. I don’t mean to slight Ferrell Pelly, who played the role in 1956 and again in 1960. If March’s performance did not exist, Pelly’s would seem sublime. But March’s does.
The Parritts of the Lumet and the Frankenheimer are, by contrast, a virtual draw. The 1960 Parritt, Robert Redford, is so staggeringly good you can only lament how seldom, once he became a star, he has been given — or allowed himself to take — a role that gave him so much latitude. It isn’t that the self-hating young man is a great role, or even a terribly good one. It’s more a device, and an occasionally irritating one, but that merely makes Redford’s achievement all the more remarkable. There’s nothing guarded here, as there so often is with Redford’s later appearances; the moods are sudden and startling, the outbursts at once annoying and deeply moving. I think it’s the best work he’s ever done.
Jeff Bridges had been giving fine performances for some time before the 1973 Iceman, so his appearance here may have seemed less spectacular than Redford’s at the time. And, as with Ryan, he’s helped by the Eastmancolor camera; there are moments when you watch, filled with wonder at the beauty of his open young face. For all the schematicism of the role, Bridges brings to it the heartbreaking ardor, confusion, guilt and cruelty of youth, and more. When he feels Larry has given him permission to enact the very escape his hoped-for substitute father cannot undertake for himself, the sound he makes — something between a sobbing whimper of relief and a sigh very close to the post-orgasmic — is unforgettable.
In the smaller roles, most of the 1960 cast are the equal of those in 1973. Two exceptions are the Willie of Bradford Dillman and the Joe Mott of Moses Gunn. James Broderick’s 1960 Willie is very fine, but Dillman’s is revelatory. We’d seen him in a profusion of thankless, largely forgettable, movie and television roles for years in the ’60s and ’70s, and he’d always seemed one of those actors, not beautiful enough to star, always reliable in support, who never quite get the chance to grasp the brass ring. Drunk, Dillman’s Willie simmers in self-disgust, and his delirium tremens is so terrifyingly right that he becomes a genuinely tragic figure, too young to be so lost, yet too long in the sauce ever to amount to anything. Moses Gunn, one of our best, and least well known, character actors, with a voice as commanding as it is recognizable, looks both like a sport and a hopeless drunk, and the way he bestirs himself to righteous anger at the others, and at himself, for their genial racism and his own complicity in it, are searing. In 1960, Maxwell Glanville was rather too robust physically to quite get the wreck Joe has become. And while his characterization is, like Broderick’s Willie, a good accounting, Gunn’s is non-pariel.
Tom Pedi had the distinction of playing Rocky, the saloon’s weather-vane of a bartender who deludes himself that being a procurer does not make him a pimp, in 1946, 1960 and 1973, and is both the same, and different, in the television edition and the AFT movie. The same, in that his characterization is roughly identical in each, yet diverges if only for his having aged into it. He’s at once keenly perceptive and eye-rollingly capricious, first cozying up to then deflating the bums in Harry’s bar with the breathtaking suddenness of a born sadist. (Like owner, like barkeep…) He’s also more than slightly terrifying. Sorrell Booke, too, is in both the Lumet and the Frankeheimer. As Hugo, perpetually sozzled, waking from his stupors just long enough to express his true loathing of the proletariat he believes he loves, Booke is both comic and (to use a word that, in context, sounds like a pun but isn’t) sobering. The Jimmy Tomorrows of 1960 and 1973 also constitute a near-draw, with the knife-edge going to latter. Harrison Dowd’s Jimmy, while eschewing any sort of noticeable accent, is moving enough. But John McLiam, whose voice carries more than “the ghost of a Scotch rhythm,” has sad, limpid eyes, helped along by the color camera, and his tremulousness is no less heartbreaking than are his occasional, doomed stabs at a regained dignity. Like Dillman, he’s ultimately heartbreaking.
The women are more problematic. Not the actresses themselves (Hilda Brawner, Julie Bovasso and Joan Copeland in ’60 and Hildy Brooks, Juno Dawson and the preposterously named Evans Evans in ’73) but the characters. Billy Wilder once allegedly — and notoriously — said of the women in his movies, “If she isn’t a whore, she’s a bore.” Well, the whores in this play are bores, devices through which O’Neill gets at his theses. The women in both casts do what they can, and Evans (married at the time to the director) rises above the material occasionally. But only barely.
Which brings us, finally, to Hickey, and the great divergence. I wonder whether Lee Marvin’s performance might have been granted more honor in 1973 had Robards’ not been broadcast thirteen years earlier. (Although Kael, who discerned too much shouting in Marvin’s long, climactic aria, may have been relying on a faulty memory; Robards also bellows.) For my part, both actors are equally fine, if in different ways. Robards may be more jocular, raising that patented sheepish chuckle of his after revealing more than he means to, and the fact that the vocal gesture is one he used in other, later roles, does not diminish its effectiveness. Marvin’s persona was never that of the glad-hander, and there is a certain tightness behind his initial bon homie that hints at the coldness with which Hickey operates; he’s spent a lifetime sizing up his marks, calculating the unstated yearnings of those he’s selling before moving in for the kill. (Not that anyone with a halfway decent mind would have much trouble figuring out this bunch.) To grouse about Marvin not being Robards is to deprive oneself the pleasure of watching an actor stretch himself, and in a role whose richness he must have known would likely never come his way again.
As directors, both Lumet and Frankenheimer serve O’Neill, and their actors, never getting in the way of either. Both editions cut the text a bit, and the ATF Iceman omits the (admittedly minor) character of Ed Mosher, Harry Hope’s circus con-man brother-in-law, perhaps because of budget — the series producer, Ely Landau, of necessity restricted his filmmakers to one million dollars — but more likely because it was felt that one parasitic hanger-on (the corrupt former cop Pat McGloin) in Harry’s apartment was sufficient. The NET production, aired over two evenings, appears to have been live; lines are flubbed slightly now and then, and the actors begin to perspire noticeably around the mid-point of each segment. If so, it makes what Robards & Co. accomplish that much more impressive. That Lumet was trained in live television, and a past master at it, in no way dulls the luster of his achievement in directing so rich and immediate a production.
The major differences between the two versions is one less of scale than of opportunity. (Although the television edition is more like a filmed stage-play, owing as much to the space in which it takes place as to anything else.) Lumet, working within the severe limitations of early video, is unable to get a visual balance, or to light his actors suggestively. The starkness of the image washes out contrast, and what I assume must have been very hot lights presumably negated any possibility for subtly or nuance in the visuals. Frankenheimer, working with the color cinematographer Ralph Woolsey — and film — and able to avail himself of Raphael Bretton’s realistically solid and beautifully tatty sets, had greater opportunity to make his Iceman Cometh much more cinematic, although he is never showy. The textures of the settings, rich and shadowed and lived-in, and the ability to use far more technically advanced, and supple, film stock than the flat black-and-white video available to Lumet, allowed Frankenheimer a looser, more realistic palette. It’s notable that the two, although radically different, got their start as directors during the era of live television drama, and had, perhaps as a result, deep respect for actors and text, both crucial here. In their respective versions of this essential American drama, each man came through with honor bright. And honor, as Aristotle suggested (and as I suspect Eugene O’Neill would have agreed) is the second greatest quality of the mind, eclipsed only by courage. All three men, to one degree or another, certainly had that.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross
By Scott Ross
When I first heard that Mel Brooks’ wildly uneven but utterly original 1968 comedy The Producers was being developed as a stage musical, my heart sank. Another adaptation of a movie? This was only in 2000, remember, long before the mad rush to plaster the entirety of Broadway with pre-sold movie titles and “jukebox” shows, yet the trend had already planted its pernicious roots, due largely to the flowering of Michael Eisner’s beloved “synergy”: Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King. It now routinely requires two dozen named producers to mount the average musical in New York; a movie company can spend and spend (and spend — Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, anyone?) in the theatre, and its investment will still be, comparatively, minimal, even relatively painless.
My apprehension for this particular show was largely alleviated when I discovered that Brooks himself was writing the score, and co-authoring the book. Since Brooks has written delicious songs for most of his movies (including of course that subversive ear-worm “Springtime for Hitler”* for the original Producers) even his not being a trained musician/composer did not concern me unduly. After all, neither was Irving Berlin, and he did well enough. But a nagging thought persisted: What in the world could they do with L.S.D.? The character, a brain-addled hippie whose spaced-out inanity garners him the starring role in that self-same Broadway musical Springtime for Hitler, had dated almost immediately, and badly. When I finally saw The Producers, around 1976, after practically memorizing the dialogue on the original soundtrack LP, it was immediately apparent that L(orenzo) S(t.) D(uBois) was one of those topical jokes that doesn’t travel; he was already embarrassingly recherché fewer than 10 years after the movie’s release. Thirty years on he’d be well night insupportable.
I needn’t have worried. Not only did Brooks and his co-writer, Thomas Meehan, dispense with L.S.D., they hit upon the happy notion of setting the show, not in the 1968 of the picture, but in the infinitely more tuneful, fiscally healthy Broadway environs of 1959. The choice of that year does not seem incidental. It was, after all, the apex of big shows with big scores: Flower Drum Song, Elaine Stritch in the Leroy Anderson-scored Goldilocks, Frank Evans and Jay Livingstone’s witty and underrated Oh, Captain!, The Sound of Music. Not to mention such hold-overs as Harold Rome’s Destry Rides Again, the Bock-Harnick Fiorello!, Mary Rodgers and Marshall Barer’s Once Upon a Mattress, Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella and, of course, the record-shattering My Fair Lady of three years prior; memories were fresh, too, of Judy Garland’s most recent stage concert, which is not as incidental to The Producers as it may at first appear. As well, ’59 saw the original production of that most perfect of all musical plays, another “musical fable” the alternate brassiness and tendress of whose score (and star) were surely beacons to Brooks: The irreducible, incandescent Merman-starred Gypsy. What an atmosphere for this show’s putative hero, the impoverished yet indefatigable Max Bialystock, not merely to exist, but to thrive! That this incomparable Max was to be portrayed by the equally inimitable Nathan Lane was further indication that something potentially wonderful might be happening.
I’d read and heard nothing of the advance buzz The Producers was generating when I picked up the newly recorded cast album. Merely glancing at the photos tickled me; hearing the score itself sent me into ecstasies. I am fully persuaded that with The Producers, Mel Brooks, already a nearly lifelong hero to me for his almost incredibly nimble brain and indomitable joie de vivre, had written the wittiest — and funniest, which is not always or necessarily the same thing — most tuneful, most intractably memorable original score in years. The finest work by a gifted amateur composer since the heyday of Frank Loesser; the greatest 1959 Broadway musical never produced.
If I had reservations, they were only about Matthew Broderick. I was flummoxed by his ascendancy to the ranks of musical leading men, and remain utterly underwhelmed by his curiously thin and under-powered, uninflected vocalizations. Worse, the character of Leo Bloom had yielded, in Gene Wilder’s simultaneously uniquely hilarious and (to employ a seeming oxymoron) magisterially vulnerable performance, one of the greatest of all comic archetypes. Broderick, as it turned out, sang decently, and even managed some pathos. But where he is merely an acceptable pipsqueak, Wilder, on film, was inspired. Original. Non-pariel. Sui generis. So much so that in his acceptance speech on winning the Academy Award® for Best Original Screenplay, Brook thanked three people: “Gene Wilder, Gene Wilder, and Gene Wilder.”
I missed the inevitable 2005 movie of the show, directed by its original director-choreographer, Susan Strohman, which came and went all too quickly, only catching up with it a few days ago on DVD. Leonard Maltin, in his Movie Guide, suggests that this particular well has been visited once too often, but I respectfully demur. While some of the movie lies in the realm of dutifully filmed theatre, much of it is splendid, and delightfully cinematic. Aspects of the show Brooks could only dream of getting onto the stage (such as Leo’s RKO fantasy of becoming a successful producer and, later, his Astaire and Rogers-inspired dance with the innocently lubricious Ula) reach heights of superbly staged, lit and photographed movie-musical bliss. And while we are, alas, denied the opportunity to relish Cady Huffman and Brad Oscar’s performances as, respectively, Ula and Springtime for Hitler’s Nazi author Franz Liebkind their replacements, Uma Thurman and Will Ferrell, do well enough, although the latter lacks the unsettling genius of the 1968 original, Kenneth Mars. (One can easily imagine the increasingly panicked casting edicts being handed down from nervous studio suits: “All right, all right! We’ll give you Lane, and Gary Beach, and Roger Bart. But you’ve gotta let us sign a couple ’a movie stars!”)
The loss of Beach and Bart would have been, if not disastrous, at least dispiriting. Indeed, they seem to me absolutely essential to the success of the entire enterprise, nearly obliterating the original 1968 performances by Christopher Hewett (the original Karpathy of My Fair Lady) and Andreas Voutsinas (who seemed to me less amusing than unpleasantly sinister.) It is in these two riotously, and magnificently queeny, performances that the great difference between The Producers of 1968 and The Producers of 2001 is most keenly writ. What in the original had seemed unduly vicious and almost militantly homophobic becomes, in the later edition, part of Brooks’ more expansive, even loving, embrace of all things theatrical. His 2001 theatre-fags are deliriously, unabashedly, queer, in the sense not merely of being homosexual but of embracing their sexuality instead of simply embodying a narrow, even hateful, conception of it. Yes, Beach’s character (the exquisitely monickered Roger DeBries) is a pretentious, arty, clueless parvenu and yes, Bart’s languidly over-sibilant Carmen Ghia (another inspired name) is the tired businessman’s conception of the prissy, fawning, dirty-minded little hairdresser. But what in ’68 had been merely mean-spirited had mutated, by the turn of the century, into relaxed, and amused, benevolence. Brooks clearly loves these two swanning loons, and their big production number, the hilariously anachronistic “Keep it Gay” does not so much mock as celebrate the pair’s courageous outrage. It’s the difference between laughing at, and laughing with. The Brooks of 1968 is nervously disdainful. The Brooks of 2001 is having a gay (but straight!) old time of it.
The newer Producers movie would almost be justified if all it did was record for posterity Lane’s phenomenal inventiveness and inspired clowning. Eschewing any imitation of Zero Mostel’s performance, this Bialystock is just as original and, in its way, memorable. And, thanks to the DVD, we’re allowed to enjoy the performer’s mastery of Brooks’ berserk mazurka and crazily over-rhymed couplets in the axed opening number, “The King of Old Broadway.” One can see why it was cut from the picture; Max’s character, and his impecunious state, are established in his first scene with Leo; unless the number had somehow been placed in that scene, the inspired dialogue between the pair becomes almost superfluous. But what a pleasure to find it, if not restored to its rightful spot, at least preserved for those who may cherish it. Another extra on the disc is the full “Along Came Bialy” in which Lane parades through Central Park like a demented Harold Hill leading not a brass band but a platoon of little old ladies cavorting with their Zimmerman frames. (Brooks used a similar gag in his underrated 1976 Silent Movie, but it works even better here.) If Broderick is less felicitous, even he has grown on me, a little, and his innate sweetness shines through, especially in the show’s surprisingly plangent — if Platonic — love song, “‘Til Him.”†
I next traveled from inspired amateur to prodigious, possibly even profligately, gifted master: From The Producers to the live 1989 Barbicon Centre concert version of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide.
A storied flop in its day, its Goddard Lieberson-produced cast recording kept the astonishingly fecund score for Bernstein’s adaptation of Voltaire’s wry satire alive for years and led, eventually, to the vivid (if overly vulgar) 1974 Hal Prince edition that finally established Candide as a genuine American masterwork. Blame for its 1956 failure vary: Lillian Hellman’s book was too studied, arch and didactic, less Voltaire than Bertolt Brecht; Tyrone Guthrie’s staging was too lush yet scatter-shot; the score was too overstuffed and “difficult” for the average Broadwayite’s ear. And while it is true that, in the revival, Hugh Wheeler’s revised book came closer to a sense of the dry outrage of the original’s bitter literary jest, a sort of black comedy avant le lettre, what was undeniable is that it was Bernstein himself who is the true author of the piece. (And that despite the lyrical contributions, in 1956, of John LaTouche, Richard Wilbur, Dorothy Parker and both Hellman and Lenny himself, and, in ’74, of Stephen Sondheim.)
While there will probably never be a Candide to suit the taste of every fan — there are, after all, multiple versions of numbers like “The Best of All Possible Wolds” and “What a Day (for an Auto-da-fé!)” and the purist will doubtless complain that this latter, “official” version is the poorer for its dropping Sondheim’s “Sheep Song” lyric — the ’89 edition (subsequently released on a double CD set following Bernstein’s untimely death in 1990) is nearly all any aficionado could want, and performed by a cast as treasurable (with one rather notable exception) as may be imagined. The (sadly, late) Jerry Hadley is an appropriately wide-eyed Candide, his warm, rich tenor caressing every plangent note; the deeply-missed Adolph Green makes a superbly ironic Pangloss, cleverly triumphing even over his own vocal limitations; Nicolai Gedda makes delectable feasts of his varied roles; Kurt Ollmann is all one could wish in a Maximilian; and Christa Ludwig is the Old Lady of one’s fondest dreams. Only June Anderson’s Cunegonde disappoints. Felled, as so many in this concert were by what was termed “the Royal Flu,” Anderson is obviously struggling, and one sympathizes. But her diction, in common with far too many of her operatic contemporaries (Erie Mills and Harolyn Blackwell, both of whom have sung the role, are prime examples) is mush-mouthed; she elides over consonants carelessly, and it’s instructive to compare Ludwig’s performance with hers: Despite her Teutonic ethnicity, Ludwig’s every English word is crystal-clear and comprehensible, without resort to ostentatious over-enunciation.
As befits an evening celebrating his most impressive (and in some ways, personal) musical-theatrical work, and not discounting the contributions of others, the concert is really All Bernstein. Although his forays to Broadway were few, in five major attempts he gave us four great shows, and in only a dozen years: On the Town, Wonderful Town, West Side Story and Candide. Other than Sondheim I can think of no other composer of Bernstein’s comparable gifts, not even Gershwin, who authored so many masterworks for the musical stage, and in so brief a time. And while Bernstein’s Candide is both a satire and a knowing opéra bouffe, two genres that would seem to cancel each other out, in his hands they not only mesh, but meld. Surely the wittiest of all Broadway scores — a wit that is reflected as well in its uniquely literate lyrics — yet Candide manages to be moving, profoundly so, especially in its glowing finale, the sublime “Make Our Garden Grow.”
This Candide is unique, too, in that it bests every one of those other opera-and-Broadway hybrids of its time (a genre begun by Bernstein’s own, ill-conceived 1984 “crossover” West Side Story recording.) But then, aside from those of Pangloss and Martin (which Green also assays here) this is a show whose every role requires not merely a good singer, but a great one. I’ve often wondered how Barbara Cook, the original Cunegonde, felt when Lenny handed her the sheet music for “Glitter and Be Gay” and she realized she’d have to hit that culminating high E flat seven times a week. But, aside from its starry cast, what makes the concert so insuperably joyous is Bernstein’s conducting. Peter G. Davis once referred, more in sadness than in anger, to Bernstein’s “ponderous, ‘Late Lenny’ style.” That affectation is in no way in evidence here. This is Candide in excelsis, as buoyant and infectious, as incandescent and sparkling, as the night the show premiered. Bernstein is so relaxed, and so clearly loving every moment, that, on top of his patented “Lenny Leap,” he often levitates in place, dancing in wriggling pleasure.
His delight is ours as well.
*Brooks claims he’s even heard the song as Muzak in elevators; I don’t doubt him.
†Side-note: Is it just me, or does the actor’s carefully chiseled chest now seem weirdly over-developed? It unbalances his diminutive frame, looking less like musculature than a male bodice.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross
By Scott Ross
Much of my home-video viewing of late has been either of plays transmitted for television or of movies adapted from the stage. Accepting as a given that what is designed for the live theatre can never be experienced in quite the same way through any other medium, the differences in approach and the limitations of form present some interesting contours for contemplation. Take, for example, two filmed stage plays of recent vintage, seen back-to-back, more through random choice than by design. (Or were they? The mind makes its patterns where, seemingly, only chance and whim prevail…)
First, Love and Human Remains, the 1993 movie of the Canadian dramatist Brad Fraser’s superb — and, given its unabashed gay perspective, astonishingly popular — 1989 play Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love. Fraser’s is one of the very few plays I have ever made a point of seeing more than once during its local run (at Raleigh Ensemble Players, in 1999.) And what with its author’s sharp, intelligent dialogue and compelling narrative, and the splendid Thomas Gibson in the lead, I had high expectations for the movie… though not, I should add, of its director, Denys Arcand, the onlie begettor of The Decline of the American Empire, arguably the most specious, pretentious, verbose, dishonest and generally stultifying “serious” movie of 1986. Arcand, as it turned out, acquitted himself well enough here. What didn’t work in the picture, however, was what did, so spectacularly, in the theatre: The playwright’s highly idiosyncratic dialogue. Somehow, between stage and screen, something got flattened. It did not seem the fault of the excellent cast, nor necessarily, of the filmmakers. So what, then?
It was only when I moved on to the next item that a possibility, however vague, began to suggest itself. If any play of the past 25 years can be said to be theatrical, surely it would be Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America. In a reverse of my experience with Love and Human Remains, I approached Angels with more than a little trepidation: Even if HBO and Mike Nichols were scrupulously true to Kushner’s proudly un-closeted dialogue and characters, his searing intelligence and his soaring stagecraft, how could this stunningly expansive “Gay Fantasia on National Themes” possibly work in the unforgiving medium of film, whose very realism must necessarily militate against so defiantly un-realistic a project? Yet, as mysteriously as the failure of Fraser’s dialogue to fully correspond with the medium, in Angels, Kushner’s lines, so alternately poetic and rhetorical on the stage, virtually sing on film.
Again, why? The only sliver of an answer that presents itself to me after lengthy consideration is that Angels is effective precisely because of its fantastic nature, not in spite of it. Although Nichols and Stephen Goldblatt, his brilliant director of photography, are at pains to present a New York as visceral and de-glamorized as possible, the fantasy elements do not sit uneasily in their frame, rendering the movie neither the fish of theatre nor the fowl of the moving picture; rather, as the Angel America herself, they burst the skin of reality. As the pieces fall, a hybrid is born: theatrically-charged, bordered on one side by the fantastic and the other by the actual, yet through some curious alchemy not schizoid but whole. Intact. The elements, shattered, re-form. Which seems somehow perfectly in keeping with Kushner’s keenly bifurcated yet intensely unified pair of plays.
It hardly hurts that Angels is cast, from top to bottom, with magnificent actors, some of them (Patrick Wilson, Ben Shenkman, the phenomenal Justin Kirk) new to me, others (Mary-Louise Parker, Emma Thompson, Jeffrey Wright, James Cromwell) more established, and two whose presence alone, I suppose, would justify the phrase “event casting”: Al Pacino and Meryl Streep. Pacino, who so often revels in outsized characters, has a field-day blasting all and sundry with the sociopathic arrogance of Roy Cohn’s self-aggrandizement, undone only in this case (the inhuman original being hardly more timorous) by his close-cropped hair for the famously bald Cohn. Was make-up tried, and discarded? Did Pacino balk at shaving his head? The question becomes almost more compelling than Cohn’s race to die before disbarment.
Streep has been a conundrum since I first saw her in 1977, in a small role in Julia. One cannot help admiring the seriousness of purpose, the manifold wigs and accents,* each applied with rigorous determination, and the sheer technique — not to mention that sharp-nosed, ovoid face and those eyes that bespeak an intelligence that itself renders her impossible to accept as a bubble-head (and how that must have limited her Hollywood chances!) But often, the technique itself has carried the day, at least for me. The sense of Streep’s characters as lived-in, even grubby, was rare: Her radiant, troubled Karen Silkwood; her cool, unyielding and ultimately heartbreaking Lindy Chamberlin in A Cry in the Dark, which Jodie Foster once correctly described as “beyond acting”; her extraordinarily plangent Lee in Marvin’s Room; and her magnificent Clarissa Vaughan in the film of The Hours. Who can forget her, collapsed on the kitchen floor, her back to the oven, devastated by grief and trying desperately not to let her capacious heart overflow with it? In Angels, Streep gets to show off her versatility (and her facility for accents) as a sly nonagenarian Rabbi, a wry Ethel Rosenberg and a complacent, angry Salt Lake City haufrau. It is that last role, interestingly, in which Streep really shines: Seemingly humorless, Hannah Pitt jousts with the best of them; stereotypically Mormon, yet she both bears her son’s sexual confusion and becomes surrogate mother to the suffering, frightened, maddened and defiant Prior. Everything Streep does as Hannah feels right, spontaneous. This, too, is beyond acting. “Being” might be a better term for it. That definition extends as well to Justin Kirk, whose Prior Walter seems to me (who admittedly missed Stephen Spinella’s original) just about definitive. Hurt, angry, buoyant, defiantly nellie, incalculably brave, Kirk personifies every young gay man in America who woke one day in the 1980s to find himself condemned, betrayed, marginalized, but, through his wit and fervor for life, never wholly defeated.
Without recourse to keeping the plays open on my lap as I watched, and bearing in mind their sheer volubility and expanse, I cannot be sure precisely how close the HBO-produced movie is to the original plays. But it seems to me a textbook case of getting the transition correctly. Nichols is a variable movie talent, as apt to go crushingly wrong as he is to go triumphantly right. But Angels in America makes a fitting bookend to a film career that began with another adaptation of an epoch-shattering, transitional stage work — also by a young gay playwright — Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The last item on the video menu, if I may be permitted the oxymoron, was likewise deeply satisfying, although on a different level: A 1963 British television transmission of Uncle Vanya in Laurence Olivier’s acclaimed Chichester Festival production. I’m not sure just when, or why, Vanya became (along with Lanford Wilson’s The 5th of July, with which it shares a number of features) one of my two favorite plays. My teenaged affection likely began with the farcical appearance of a gun in Act Three but the fullness of my response to this most plangent of Chekhov’s chamber pieces can be accounted elsewhere, and with age. As that is too private for this public space, I’ll note only how beautifully both the playwright, and this stunning cast (with one rather glaring exception) convey ennui, and its natural handmaiden, desperation, most notably in Michael Redgrave’s magisterial performance in the eponymous role… although “magisterial” in this context too seems oxymoronic, since what Redgrave anatomizes is hopelessness itself, unrelieved by the occasional revelry which, we assume, must be the only thing that holds the man together. Interestingly, while both Sonia and Dr. Astrov confess (the latter frequently) to having no hope, Vanya never does. He lives, in fact, on it… at least until its last shreds are stripped from him, first by the hated brother-in-law, later by that insufferable academic’s young wife, in whose wholly unresponsive person Vanya siphons all his non-material yearnings.
While the Kultur DVD itself is less than optimal — the original video tape has not aged well in its reproduction of light, which sometimes swallows up the actors, especially Rosemary Harris’ Helena — it is Harris herself who is the graver problem. Usually excellent, here she either settles for, as was directed by Olivier to embrace, melodramatic poses and airy line-readings, her eyes perpetually raised to some middle-distance beyond mere human ken, all of which make her both more ethereal than necessary and less condignly corporeal than required. I have no quarrel with any of the others, and indeed it is a positive benison to have in your living room so rich a set of voices, and faces, from the peerlessly flutey Max Adrian and the prototypically Nanny-esque Sybil Thorndyke to Joan Plowright’s quietly heart-rendering Sonia and the superlative Astrov of Olivier himself, all too clearly enjoying his own purported misery, yet agonizingly oblivious to Sonia’s infatuation.
But crowning the whole affair is Redgrave’s Vanya. Although his film career stretched from the late 1930s to the mid-’70s, Redgrave was almost criminally underutilized in that medium. Was he possibly, and in common with his protean contemporary Ralph Richardson, not conventionally handsome enough? Could his rich tenor/baritone have been a shade too tremulous, or imitable? Did he perhaps read too “queer”? Whatever the reasons, you have only to watch him at work as Vanya for two minutes to lament how little known he was (and is) to audiences outside of Britain and to appreciate with what fullness he dove into this quintessential Chekhovian “loser.” It’s a performance whose sound, thanks to the superb 1962 Philips LP set, I have long cherished; I’m delighted at last to see the action so beautifully suited to the word.
*I cannot see Meryl Streep, especially under a new wig, without being reminded of something the late André Ernotte once said. When asked by a Middlebury College student his opinion of Streep as an actor he began his response with, “She’s a bundle of emotions in an English accent, she’s a bundle of emotions in a Polish accent…”
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross
By Scott Ross
Very probably, the last thing one should do if one is a slave, as I am, to chronic depression is to either read a Dickens novel, or view the adaptation of one.
Why I chose this moment finally to sit down with the eight and 1/2-hour Royal Shakespeare Company Nicholas Nickleby I really can’t say, except that I’ve had the boxed set of DVDs for years, the depression longer, and I’m not getting any younger. Still… If one has any sensitivity at all, then meandering through Dickens is an act virtually guaranteed to exercise it; when your emotions are raw, close to the surface, and crying jags come easy, it’s going to be a trial. And assaying this particular Dickens novel is just asking for it.
Knowing the text likely makes it even worse, and Nicholas Nickleby has been a part of my cultural life for over three decades now. I did not see the original London or Broadway productions, but I certainly remember the Time magazine cover story and the attendant controversy over its then-exorbitant $100 ticket price, which now seems the veriest pittance. When it was taped for British broadcast and no American network would touch it, Mobil, to its eternal credit, picked it up and ran it in syndication, over, if memory serves, four consecutive nights. I can still vividly recall the excitement with which I waited to partake of each successive evening’s installment, and the nearly complete satisfaction the program gave me. In the interim came the surprisingly accomplished 2002 movie version, a veritable Secretariat of the cinema by way of contrast, one that somehow managed to encompass the narrative in a mere two hours and 12 minutes. About a decade ago, I finally cracked the novel itself, whose length had always intimidated me. It was a splendid experience, although I did long, finally, for it to end; ennui sets in around the 900th page of almost anything.
Last week it all came full-circle, as I revisited the television edition. I knew the tears would flow and, in my present state, all too copiously. How could they not, what with Dickens’ mastery of emotional manipulation, exacerbated by the magnificence of Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s resolutely powerful and magnificently theatrical staging, and pushed through the histrionic stratosphere by David Threlfall’s astonishingly moving Smike and the pluperfect Newman Noggs of Edward Petherbridge?
I recognize in Smike the author’s perennial favorite, the child or youth (usually, but not always, a boy) smashed, or nearly so, by the endemic Victorian system of, on the one hand, callous indifference and, on the other, active collusion in his destruction. We see him in Oliver Twist, in David Copperfield, in Pip, in Jo the crossing-sweeper and, on the distaff side, in the Littles, Nell and Dorrit: Sometimes triumphant, sometimes doomed, yet always striving against insuperable (when not downright malignant) odds. Smike is, in his way the ne plus ultra of the type: Not only shockingly poor, ill clothed and ill fed nor even merely physically crippled but mentally and emotionally damaged, seemingly beyond repair… and utterly beyond resistance to the emotionally susceptible. And, in my heart of hearts I know that Newman Noggs is, like the impossibly decent Cheeryble brothers, too good to be true. But I can’t imagine not being moved by the performances of Threlfall and Petherbridge.
Threlfall does miracle work with Smike, somehow (and even granting that the actor augments the character’s mannerisms well beyond Dickens’ less extreme description) never asking for pity no matter how piteous the character’s physical tribulations and emotional woes, or how pitiless the vicissitudes that attack him. It is, I think, that very resolution and restraint which make him so unutterably heartbreaking.
As Noggs, Petherbridge’s every gesture and remark is perfection itself. If ever a character was perched on the precipice of manipulative self-pity, it’s Newman Noggs. Petherbridge has a way of seeming almost casually ironic, as if Noggs’ bibulousness has so simultaneously slowed and sped up his normal reactions that his sarcastic asides and small, bitter observations are barely perceived by his listeners, seemingly uttered without rancor and, indeed, with a kind of self-effacing apology. Timid yet sardonic, incalculably decent but neither overly nor even overtly sweet, he embodies the infinite hope of the essentially hopeless.
In this production, even the impenetrably cold Ralph Nickleby is moving, especially in John Woodvine’s stunning performance. So too, against all odds, is Emily Richards’ Kate Nickleby. The novel’s Kate is less a full-bodied character than a set of Victorian poses; she’s Virtuous Young Womanhood hideously importuned and victimized, and she reads as the literary equivalent of all those damsels in distress that render much silent movie acting of the early years so absurdly fustian. (And which Debbie Reynolds memorably poked fun at in Singin’ in the Rain.) Edgar, Nunn and Caird come in for some of the credit here, I suppose, but the achievement is, ultimately, Richards’. Her Kate is intelligent, stalwart, brave, despairing… but never bathetic.
Ben Kinglsey originated the pivotal role of Whackford Squeers, the appalling Yorkshire schoolmaster of Dotheboys Hall, at the RSC. By the time of the taping, Kinglsey was, due to his performance as Gandhi, a major movie presence; in his place was the alternately hilarious and terrifying Alun Armstrong. The protean Bob Peck is, astonishingly, equally effective as the uncouth yet decent John Browdie and the genteel and infinitely damnable Mulberry Hawk. Not only is he virtually unrecognizable as the same actor, his very vocal timbre alters: First deep, warm, resonant and full of bonhomie (Browdie) then high, cold, sneering and filled with malice (Hawk). It is Hawk who is perhaps the most puzzlingly Iago-like character in Nicholas Nickleby; his every impulse is to the destruction of others, for its own sake, far above the lure of the pecuniary. Even Ralph is more explicable. But as thoughtfully ironic double casting, Peck’s contrasts could not be sharper.
The same holds true for Suzanne Bertish, who makes a splendidly spiteful Fanny Squeers and a charming Miss Snevellici, both ardent and, ultimately futile, suitors of young Nicholas. Lila Kaye is adorably hammy as Mrs. Crummles and a scarifying termagant as Mrs. Squeers. Of the nominal villains, Janet Dale’s mercurial Miss Nagg is nicely complimented by her hysteria as the absurd Mrs. Wititterly, while Nicholas Gecks’ Lord Frederick Verisopht is the most beautifully delineated of Kate’s tormentors. His features soft, sensual and Byronesque, his manner languid and foppish, he is seemingly indifferent yet becomes the single character who most effectively stymies the machinations of Hawk, at the cost of his own life, which he relinquishes with sad, manful irony. And, being me, I must also note the presence, in several small roles, of Stephen Rashbrook, the most boyishly beautiful of the male actors in the ensemble. He quite literally took my breath away every time the camera caught his almost ethereally lovely face.
As Nicholas, Roger Rees seems less efficacious to me now than he did in the early 1980s. Too much of his performance is pitched on sheer nerves, his limpid eyes always threatening to overflow, his infrequent outbursts of rage muted rather than enhanced by the emotionalism he displays throughout. It must be a difficult role to get right, and I do not mean to imply that Rees is by any means bad in it. He limns Nicholas’ overmastering decency, and his impulse to compassion, exactly, especially in his interactions with Smike. But at nearly 40, he was a bit long in the tooth to be wholly capable of expressing the young man’s essential naïveté. Charlie Hunnam’s much more youthful Nicholas in the 2002 movie was rather closer to the mark in that respect, and he had the built-in advantage of being young.
Far more problematic is the video direction by Jim Goddard. First, there is the disturbingly occasional glimpse, or sound, of the live Old Vic audience, in a series otherwise obviously taped without one. As Nunn and Caird utilized the theatre itself in their staging, a complete record of the production virtually demanded the spectators’ inclusion. And while I can understand the impulse to capture the bulk of thing without the constant, and intrusive, sounds of laughter and applause from the audience, and the chance to do a scene, or a moment, over, the result is a curious hybrid that does not solve the problem satisfactorily.
Worse, Goddard often places his visual emphases in an almost arbitrary fashion, spoiling Nunn and Caird’s stage tableaux either by focusing in too close on a grouping or, weirdly, cutting away from a moment, or an actor’s performance, to its utter detriment. A perfect example of this striking ineptitude is the moment when the marvelous Rose Hill as Mrs. Gruden ends her hilarious coloratura trillings, begins the verse of her “Farewell” song and only then grabs a lungful of air. Rather than hold on the performer for maximum comic impact, Goddard cuts, incongruously, to Nicholas and Miss Snevellici. His direction is filled with such inexplicable lapses, often numbing when not outright killing the effect of Nunn’s and Caird’s stunningly expressive theatricality. The A&E presentation is likewise annoying: The video set climaxes each hour of the thing with end-credits, superimposed over the Old Vic audience going mad for what was, quite obviously, the final curtain call.
Still, as a record of an unforgettable event, this Nicholas Nickleby will do. Aside from the variety and assurance of the RSC company and its directors, and the starkly utilitarian splendor of the settings by John Napier and Dermot Haye, the home video set also captures the late Stephen Oliver’s* superb underscore and songs and David Edgar’s subtle genius at distilling a massive novel, retaining as much of Dickens’ more pointed observational prose as a stage can reasonably contain, presenting the narrative and the characters with fealty, and doing so in a way that is both epic and intimate — and, always, appropriately theatrical. No small thing, that, and for a frustrated actor like Dickens himself, a fitting tribute.
If one has to cry, there are certainly worse things to weep over.
*Oliver, a formidable composer of opera, succumbed, as did far too many of his male contemporaries, to AIDS, in 1992.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross
By Scott Ross
The cover of the June 1980 Esquire famously asked, “Is Anyone in America Not Writing a Screenplay?” While I admit to once collaborating on just such an animal — a crazy-quilt, Python/Ernie Kovacs-inspired series of blackout sketches written with my then best friend during our early high school years — and while I further cop to being very much besotted with movies (of the 20th century, anyway) and to having a reasonably impressive inventory of published screenplays in my personal library, the form is not one I find especially alluring. Even in 1980, when Esquire was posing the question, I had a tendency to roll my eyes, figuratively if not literally*, whenever someone said that he (and it was always “he”) was “working on a screenplay.” By the mid-’70s the phrase had become as much a cultural cliché as “But what I really want to do is direct.” Indeed, if the truth be known, “But what I really want to do is direct” is the second clause of the statement that begins, “I’m working on a screenplay.”
Robert McKee, maintainer of something called “Story Seminar” in which he imparts to the credulous the secrets of screenwriting success (and, as always with these types, has never had a screenwriting success) is somewhat notorious for having noted, “Every epoch has a dominant art form, and the dominant art form of the Twentieth Century is the cinema. The people who create the stories of this art form will be recognized as the great story-tellers of the Twentieth Century.” So — quick! — name me the Recognized Great Storytellers. I’ll wait.
Give up? You might have said William Goldman. Or Robert Towne. Or Arthur Laurents, Paddy Chayefsky, Joan Tewkesbury, Paul Schrader, Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, Dennis Potter or — if you’re especially au courant in these matters — Alan Bennett, John Logan, Dustin Lance Black, Joss Whedon, John Ridley, Nora Ephron, Tony Kushner or, just possibly, maybe, Aaron Sorkin. You might even have gone as far back as Ernest Lehman, Betty Comden Adolph and Green, Frank Nugent, Samson Raphaelson, Dudley Nichols, Ben Hecht, Phillip Dunne, Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, Leigh Brackett and Herman J. Mankiewciz. But I’m willing to bet few, if any, of those names occurred to you. Because, McKee’s overly optimistic wishful thinking to the contrary, movie writers are never, ever recognized by the public as great storytellers. Movie producers made sure that never happened during the studio era, and movie directors (abetted by know-nothing critics) have made even more certain it wouldn’t in the decades since. And even if you came up with Woody Allen, Samuel Fuller, Blake Edwards, Billy Wilder, Orson Welles, Richard Brooks, John Huston, Preston Sturges, Joseph L. Mankiewciz, Alexander Payne, Joel and Ethan Coen, or even George Lucas, I can almost guarantee you thought of them as directors first, screenwriters second… if you remembered they were scenarists at all. (Despite which, Welles for one preferred the term writer-director. “With,” he said, “an emphasis on the former.”)
Screenwriters have nearly always been the lowliest men and women on the proverbial totem pole; the bastard-children of the movie biz. Jack Warner may have been speaking for the entire industry (Darryl Zanuck possibly excepted) when he referred to his studio’s scenarists as “schmucks with Underwoods.” Even today, the notion of the screenwriter being available for consultation or (Good God!) actually on the set while his or her script is being filmed is one that places eyebrows just under the hairline and sets mouths to permanent sneers. And, as with directors, screenwriters, however successful, never own their own work.
Although Billy Wilder maintained that “In the beginning was the Word” the word, in movie circles, is worth little, if not actually worthless. Indeed, one waits in vain for a modern-day Robert Riskind to drop a ream of 20-pound bond on the desk of some self-aggrandizing director with the modern equivalent of “Give that The Capra Touch!” Had it not been for a single meddling studio director† interfering with, and usually diluting, their words and stories, Wilder and Sturges would never have become directors in the first place. It is surely no accident that Joe Gillis, aspiring screenwriter, becomes a gigolo and ends up floating face-down in Gloria Swanson’s swimming pool. That’s a Wilderian metaphor if ever there was one. Screenwriter: Screw, then discard.
William Goldman says that no one tells the composer how to compose or the cinematographer how to photograph, since no one except a composer understands music and no one other than a DP fully comprehends cinematography. But everyone uses words and believes he or she knows how to write. Or at least, knows better than the writer. I think his axiom is, in the first clause, faulty, as the Hollywoods are full of the bodies of DPs and composers (and art directors, and set designers, and film editors and, for all I know, grips and best-boys) some director or producer or studio functionary thought he knew better than. But his second clause still seems absolutely spot-on to me. In the theatre, there is a little thing called The Dramatists Guild, which entity exists to protect the playwright (and the composer or lyricist) from actors seeking to make up their own lines, directors cutting scripts wholesale and producers gutting entire plays that are, suddenly and well into rehearsal, no longer to their liking. In Hollywood, there is only the Writers Guild of America, West. This body can settle disputes between screenwriters assigned to the same project, and arbitrate generally for the overall protection of scenarists. But it is virtually powerless against studios, or producers, or directors, or even actors, doing pretty much whatever the hell they want to a given script before it reaches production, during the filming, and well into post-production. Screenwriters know this. They don’t like it, but they cannot change it. They are gadflies merely, at best annoying, at worst able, during periodic contract negotiations, to shut down anything not already before the cameras. (The result of which is the occasional gain for screenwriters, a periodic loss for the culture; the last time we went through that upheaval we ended up with an endless parade of allegedly script-less, alleged “reality” television. We are still suffering from the fallout of that one.)
Show me a screenwriter with power, and I will show you a Screenwriter/Producer. There’ve been few of them. Damn few. Carl Foreman, Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, Sam Fuller and William Peter Blatty come to mind, in the past, the Coens in the present. Paddy Chayefsky did not produce his movies, but they bore a possessive that marked them as clearly his. But then, Chayefsky was the exception to just about every rule. And the Coens write, produce (Ethan) and direct (Joel) their own work, which puts them in an unheard-of category anyway. A playwright has the power, through his guild, to shut down a production if he feels his work is being betrayed by it. A screenwriter is paid, dismissed, and likely never heard from again — unless the screenplay wins an award… which the director will likely claim was really due to him anyway… or brings suit of some kind, which is also rare. If he wins it (cf., Gore Vidal, Art Buchwald, Harlan Ellison) it’s even rarer. And a self-appointed auteur will almost never bring up the screenwriter in conversation, other than to denounce or deride him.
Television is alleged to be a writer’s medium, and perhaps it is. In England. There the play, movie or series episode bears the title “Written by” or just “By.” An Englishman Abroad is not “A film by John Schlesinger.” It is “By Alan Bennett.” In America, no one notices who wrote anything on television. The writer’s (or writers’) credit appears very much as it does in movies — usually, in episodic shows, followed by an interminable list of “Associate Producers,” “Executive Producers” and even “Associate Executive Producers.”‡ Then, finally, “Directed by.” Writer? What writer?
The fact is if you are a dramatist, there is only one venue in this country that allows you to be the author of your work: The theatre. And the ultimate irony is that theatre — dramatic theatre — is now as dead as Marley. Musicals, yes. Musicals by (you should pardon the expression) the score. Yes, some playwright usually takes home a Pulitzer every year for drama, but his or her plays don’t run. Even Off-Broadway… which is itself now nearly indistinguishable from its gaudier coeval. The working playwright in America now is the writer whose plays are usually done outside New York… and he or she is usually not making a living at it. A working playwright, if he’s lucky and has the requisite education, teaches at a prestigious university. Gone, seemingly forever, is the notion of an American whose sole employment is as a playwright. There are exceptions, but they usually make their real living as screenwriters (Tony Kushner comes to mind.) The days when a young Neil Simon wakes up one morning, sees lines at the Broadway box-office and knows he has made it are over, presumably for good. There are times when a playwright — this playwright, anyway — wishes he’d never typed his first play-script.
For good or ill, however, those scripts are mine. They do not belong to CBS, or HBO, or AMC, or Universal, or Warners, or Disney. I decide who can mount them (virtually no one past their initial productions, alas, but that’s more or less beside the point.) I decide when a line may be re-written, or a scene re-configured, and I alone will write, or revise, or re-configure — in consultation with the director and with input from the actors, certainly; but unilateral, wholesale revision of my work is not going to happen, unless I’m hundreds of miles away from the production and can only trust that the people who cared enough about my script to actually produce it will respect it, and me as the author, enough to refrain from “creative” meddling and they don’t. And chances are I’ll never know. So far, I have been fortunate to deal only with people of integrity.
Would I like to make screenwriters’ wages?
Damn skippy I would.
Would I trade my autonomy, poor thing though it be, for the monetary compensation of an Arthur Laurents, knowing that both his biggest and most respected hits (The Way We Were and The Turning Point) are going to be utterly emasculated by their directors and their stars?
I sure as Hell would not.
Yet one often reads amateur play-scripts whose writers would not only prefer to be writing screenplays, but who actually are. I’m not talking about the use of so-called cinematic techniques; my own preference as a dramatist is to keep the stage, and the action, as fluid as possible, without recourse to cumbersome scene changes and boring inter-act blackouts and often by incorporating temporal fluidity as well. This allows not only for ease of staging and design (which, among other felicities, might actually help get your work mounted by cost-conscious companies and producers) but for surprise and dramatic effect. The use of these techniques is debatable, of course; I only know that they work for me, and excite me, as a writer and as a spectator. But that, for good or ill, is deliberate intent, on my part, as a dramatist — it’s how I see any potential subject, and what I most like see myself. What I’m referring to are stage plays that read like screenplays, replete with impossible effects, and equally impossible stage directions. In the otherwise admirable A Shayna Maidel the playwright, Barbara Lebow, includes two scenes, back-to-back, in which the leading character goes from one full costume at the end of the one to another, completely new, ensemble at the beginning of the next. No backstage dresser alive could get that woman changed with sufficient rapidity to avert boring the entire audience, and one is left scratching one’s head in perplexity that no one connected with the original production informed the playwright that this was simply not good stagecraft. Or — and this seems somehow worse to me — that Lebow herself did not know better.
The impulse to write for the screen when one is supposedly crafting a play is rampant. One such script I read in college contained not merely one but several full-scale historical ground and air battles. I’m not joking — or exaggerating. Another alleged “play” by an amateur I encountered a few years ago began with several women convening at a beach cottage (already a hoary dramatic device in itself, but let that pass.) At the end of this opener, the women — who are still in their everyday togs, please remember, as they’ve just arrived — decide to go for a swim. The next scene discovers the entire cast, in bikini bathing suits, painfully examining their collective, total-body sunburn. As Jerome Robbins once said to Stephen Sondheim about a static verse, “All right, then — you stage it!” Either the “playwright” knows nothing about stagecraft (in which case, why is he or she writing a play?) or holds the theatre itself in some sort of secret contempt. “But what I really want to do is write a screenplay.”
A personal anecdote that is to the point. When I met the critic David Denby at a local signing for his 1996 Great Books, the owner of the bookstore introduced me to him as a critic and a playwright who had recently won an award and a production for his play The Dogs of Foo.
I appreciated her boost, but I knew something she didn’t: Namely, that Denby, whom I admire more than nearly any other contemporary movie critic with the exception of Gary Giddins, despises the stage. He once wrote a long, magnificently pig-headed and astonishingly spurious piece for The Atlantic (“Theatrephobia,” January 1985; look it up) in which, juxtaposing current movies and Broadway shows of the time, he came down fourscore for the worst movie over the finest play. He is a man who, despite a reverence for the plays of Shakespeare (Lear in particular) absolutely loathes theatre.
Denby asked me what the play was about. I replied that it centered on a 1930s movie director very much like George Cukor, and juxtaposed the past and the present.
He responded, “Sounds like it might be a good movie.”
Like the prophet, the playwright has no honor in his own country. But he still has more than the screenwriter.
Billy Wilder’s epithet reads, “I’m a writer. But then, nobody’s perfect.” In 1986, while accepting his American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award as a filmmaker, he defended his primary profession (screenwriting) and, criticizing the bottom-line perfidy of the Hollywood Suits, noted, “Theirs may be the kingdom, but ours is the power, and the glory.”
Who would have ever thought that Billy Wilder was an optimist?
* And no, Virginia, these two words are not inter-changeable.
† Mitchell Lisen.
‡ All of which means someone is getting a credit who pretty much did nothing.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross
Post-Script, February 2017
Anent my comments on “reality” television: Without it, would there — could there — have been a President Trump? I rest my case.