Necrology, 2019: Writers, Artists, Musicians, Singers and Composers

Standard

By Scott Ross

Although I am still in something of a state of disbelief over the deaths, in 2018, of Harlan Ellison and William Goldman who, although neither had published much of anything new in decades, remain among the American writers highest in my personal Pantheon, this past year —  as is increasingly the case as one ages — saw the passing of several touchstones: Two of my favorite writers, who could not have been further apart except in general excellence (Toni Morrison, John Simon); a novelist (Patricia Nell Warrren) whose popular work from my nascent gay adolescence meant more to me at that time than almost any other’s; an actor (Albert Finney) and a comedian (Tim Conway) I cherished; a cartoonist of genius (Howard Cruse) whose unabashedly gay milieu helped limn the contours of my young manhood; four musical figures whose recordings — two known to me from childhood (André Previn, Doris Day), one from puberty (Michel Legrand) and the last from my hot youth (Leon Redbone) — remain unimpeachable favorites of my adulthood; and a giant of the theatre  (Harold Prince) whose approach to staging musical plays was vastly influential in the culture at large, and to the way I wrote my own plays. These are the ones that hurt the most, but there was, as there always is, plenty of only slightly lesser tristesse to go around in 2019.


I. Writers

Perry Deane Young, 77.
A journalist and playwright, Young was mainstream and “out” when the latter was pretty much a career-killer unless one lived in San Francisco. (Young worked and lived largely in North Carolina.) His most well-known books were Two of the Missing, about the disappearances of his fellow Vietnam war correspondents Sean Flynn (Errol’s son) and Dana Stone, and, with David Kopay, The David Kopay Story, detailing the former National League running back’s life, career, and coming out… in 1975. It sold well, but few then were ready to deal with the reality of gay athletes, out or not. Most sports fans and athletes still aren’t.


Patricia Nell Warren
, 82.
Patricia Nell Warren - The Front Runner

Warren’s truly groundbreaking novel The Front Runner was for me, at 17 and coming to terms with my own sexuality, a kind of lifeline. In 1978 there were very few prominent, un-closeted personalities, in any field. (Had I only known about Harvey Milk!) Warren’s book, with its unapologetic young athletic protagonist Billy Sive, helped anchor, and remind me — as we needed reminding in those immediate post-Stonewall years — that my being gay need neither define the totality of who I was, nor cause me shame: Not all faggots lisped, or wore dresses, or screamed like queens. It would take me a while longer to not be embarrassed by those who did. But The Front Runner, the first bestselling, mainstream gay novel, gave me, and millions of young gay boys like me, permission to be themselves.

I haven’t been on Facebook in years, but I am grateful now that I became friendly with Patricia Nell Warren there, and had the chance to tell her how much her novel meant, and continues to mean, to me.

Toni Morrson resized

Toni Morrison, 88.
Although I suspect her finest work was behind her by the time of her death (I haven’t yet read Home and God Help the Child, so I’m open to being proven wrong) if you live to 88 and your oeuvre includes such astonishments as The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Sula, Jazz, Paradise, Love and that modern miracle of expressive outrage, Beloved, the Nobels and Pulitzers you accrue mean far less than the totality of your imaginative output, which is so rich and unparalleled it secures you a place in the canon beside Twain, Melville, Welty and the Fitzgerald of The Great Gatsby. Like Ray Bradbury at his most lyrical, Morrison was a prose poet, and her genius was of surpassing brilliance. When you read her, you lose track of the number of times her descriptive compositions stop your breath — and your heart. With Morrison’s death, America has lost the last of its greatest, and most vital, post-war poet-novelists.

Alvin Sargent (née Alvin Supowitz), 92.
The writer of such notable American movies as The Sterile Cuckoo (1969), The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972), Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (1973), Straight Time (1978, with Jeffrey Boam), Dominick and Eugene (1988) and Ordinary People (1980), the latter of which won him an Oscar®, Sargent is also remembered, fondly, for his screenplays for Paper Moon (1973) and Julia (1977), for which he won his first Academy Award. That a writer of Sargent’s varied gifts ended his career scripting four Spider-Man movies is a perfect paradigm; it says everything about the state of 21st century popular culture and the descending arc of the American screenwriter’s life.

Herman Wouk, 103.
The author of The Caine Mutiny (book and play) published his last novel, The Lawgiver, at 97, and his final book at 100. That says nothing about the quality of his work (or wouk) but it’s impressive nonetheless.

Roger O. Hirson, 93.
Remembered chiefly for his book for the hit Bob Fosse musical Pippin, Hirson had the unhappy distinction of being one of the few librettists in modern times barred from rehearsals of a Broadway musical by his show’s director.

Martin Charnin, 84.
Originally a performer (he was Big Deal, one of the Jets, in West Side Story, later known as a lyricist, later a director, Charnin specialized in flops: Hot Spot (1963, one month and change), Mata Hari (1967; closed in D.C.), La Strada (1969; 1 performance), Two by Two (1971, less than a year on Danny Kaye’s name), Nash at Nine (1973, 2 weeks), Bar Mitzvah Boy (1979, who knows?), I Remember Mama (1979, 3 months), The First (1981, 3 months) – lyricist, director; co-book writer with Joel Siegel, A Little Family Business (1982, 12 performances), Cafe Crown (1 month and change). He was cursed to have a single hit, Annie (1977, 2,377 performances) which he conceived and directed and for which he supplied a set of mostly lukewarm lyrics. Charnin was so embarrassed by the 1982 movie he attempted to re-tool the show in response, and to coast on those attempts, periodically for the rest of his life: Annie Warbucks (1993), something called Annie and the Hoods for which I can find no information), The Annie Christmas Show (1977). Blessed is the man who never has a hit, for he will keep trying other things.

Larry Siegel, 93.
Known for his scripts for MAD Magazine movie satires, Siegel was also a writer on Laugh-In and, for four non-consecutive seasons, The Carol Burnett Show.

Terrance Dicks, 84.
As the Script Editor for Doctor Who from 1969–74 (the John Pertwee years) Dicks was responsible for the series “Day of the Daleks,” “The Sea Devils,” “The Three Doctors,” “Carnival of Monsters,” and “Planet of the Spiders,” as well as many of the Who paperback novelizations of the time.

A Day in the Death of Joe Egg resized

Alan Bates and Janet Suzman in the movie of Peter Nichols’ play A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1972).

Peter Nichols, 92.
Nichols famously turned his experience as the father of a spastic child into the the giddily theatrical, often hilarious and, ultimately, heartbreaking, play (and subsequent movie) A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. Among his other notable works are the plays The National Health, Privates on Parade (also a movie) and Passion Play.

Mardik Martin, 84.
This Iranian-born Armenian-American screenwriter’s credits include Mean Streets (written with Martin Scorsese), Valentino (with Ken Russell), New York, New York (with Earl Mac Rauch) and, with Paul Schrader, Raging Bull. The first title represents Scorsese’s rise, the second Russell’s nadir… and the last two Scorsese’s decline.

Rudy Behlmer, 92.
Behlmer’s forte as a film historian was to edit studio memoranda into compelling narratives (Memo from David O. Selznick, Inside Warner Bros., 1935 – 1951, Memo from Daryl F. Zanuck) illuminating factory practices during the first American movie “golden age.” His Behind the Scenes: The Making of… limns the process by which such milestones as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Maltese Falcon and Singin’ in the Rain were created.

Tribute - Lemmon by Hirschfeld resized

The essence of Jack Lemmon: Al Hirschfeld’s brilliant caricature for Bernard Slade’s play Tribute.

Bernard Slade, 89.
This Canadian teleplay author, latterly a playwright and screenwriter, had on his c.v. such immortal entries as The Flying Nun, The Partridge Family, Same Time Next Year, Romantic Comedy and Tribute. That last title was so poor even Jack Lemmon couldn’t keep it running, and the subsequent movie ranks (appropriate word) as perhaps Lemmon’s worst. Not him in it, but the picture itself.

Ernest J. Gaines, 86.
The venerated author of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men and A Lesson Before Dying — as with so many titles, books I have in my library but have not (yet) read.

William Luce. 88.
A playwright whose specialty was one-woman (and, occasionally, one-man) shows: The Belle of Amherst, Zelda, Lillian, Lucifer’s Child, Barrymore) often with Charles Nelson Reilly directing and, occasionally, with some very good verbiage indeed.

John Simon resized

John Simon, 94.
One of the few great theatre critics, living or dead, in America, Simon suffered the stroke that ultimately killed him while at a theatre, doing the thing he loved most: Seeing a play and preparing to write about it. That it was a dinner theatre might have made even Simon chuckle.

Michael Feingold, in a spurious obituary for American Theatre, wrote, “Though I knew John for nearly half a century, I never fully understood why he continued to go to the theatre and write about it. In his old age, as his public status and the platform for his writing diminished in stature, I began to suspect that his devotion to his art was partly an addiction and partly a Don Quixote-like quest for an unattainable grail. These are basic elements of the drive that keeps all theatre critics at their work, but John embraced the two in a most unusual way. He did not confine himself to theatre, but regularly reviewed films, books, and music as well. A cultural omnivore whose erudition was as tremendous as his constant need for new works to evaluate, he searched through every creation he confronted to determine its flaws.” (And that’s just the opening paragraph!) In the Feingoldian view of the universe, Heaven forbid a man write about more than one subject, or continue to be enthusiastic about the arts, and about writing, in his final years. And, apparently, if you can no longer write for major publications, and regardless of whether that suggests a deficiency in those organs themselves, you are a pathetic old loser if you write only for your own blog… or your own pleasure.

I should like to see with what wonders Feingold (who also used to write for a major paper, and no longer does) will fill his dotage.


II. Artists/Cartoonists

Gahan Wilson - Insane Eye Doctor resizedGahan Wilson, 89.
Wilson was Charles Addams pushed to an extreme, at once more horrific, and often funnier, than that great, macabre artist. Naturally, Wilson’s métier was not Addams’ New Yorker but National Lampoon.

Howard Cruse, 75.Howard Cruse 750x_0

In 1983, readers of the once-great gay weekly The Advocate were introduced to Wendel, Cruse’s instantly appealing comic strip, which grew from a satire on cruising to a marvelous showplace for his incisive wit and fluid, expansive drawing style. (The artist acknowledged later that, in the age of AIDS, that concept was too fraught with anxiety.) Wendel was soon paired with the semi-closeted actor and single father Ollie, their private world opening to include friends, neighbors, employers and various passers-by whose richness was unparalleled in the world of gay cartoons to that point. What this Advocate reader didn’t know then was that Cruse was a noted underground comics artist whose strip Barefootz, accused of cutesiness by some, contained a gay hippie character (Headrack). Cruse was the founding editor, in 1979, of the truly revolutionary Denis Kitchen publication Gay Comix, a peripatetic anthology of stories, some humorous, some more dramatic, by gay and Lesbian artists.* Wendel ended its run in 1989, and Cruse spent the next six years working on his astonishing, somewhat autobiographical graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby, which was published to great acclaim in 1995. As the son of an Alabama preacher Cruse in his art, and his life (he married his partner Eddie Sedarbaum in 2004 after the two moved to Massachusetts) gave a gentle middle finger to his repressive upbringing, which is of course the best revenge any gay man or Lesbian in America.


III. Music

Daryl Dragon
, 76.
One-half, with Toni Tennille, of The Captain & Tennille, Dragon was keyboardist for The Beach Boys from 1967 — 1972, during which time Mike Love gave him the nickname (“Captain Keyboard”) that, along with the pair’s doggedly middle-of-the-road hits, defined him in the pop world of the 1970s.

Michel Legrand resized

Michel Legrand, 86.
The protean French composer, arranger, conductor and jazz pianist first came to my attention with his witty score (reportedly composed in a week) for the Richard Lester/George MacDonald Fraser The Three Musketeers in 1973. Only later did I become aware of the range of his work, from the — as they now say “through-sung” — Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964) to his scores for The Thomas Crown Affair (and which included the song “The Windmills of Your Mind” which, with a lyric by Marilyn and Alan Bergman, won the trio an Academy Award®), Richard Brooks’ The Happy Ending (“What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” came from that), Picasso Summer, Summer of ’42 (second Oscar®), Orson Welles’ F for Fake, Atlantic City for Louis Malle and (again with the Bergmans) Barbra Streisand’s Yentl (third Oscar®). His finest movie work, however, is his superb score for the Joseph Losey/Harold Pinter masterpiece The Go-Between (1971), a set of variations on a theme that perfectly limns the movie’s rising (and ironic) action. Legrand may not have been among the “heavyweight” film composers, but his charm is entirely abundant. His final project, fittingly enough, was honoring his promise to score Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind when it was, finally, edited. Neither man, I suspect, could imagine it would take 38 years.

Peter Tork, 77.
Although The Monkees was a pre-fabricated group, American television’s response to the Beatles, Tork was an accomplished musician in the early ‘60s Greenwich Village “folk scene.” (Interestingly, his friend Stephen Stills, rejected for The Monkees, recommended Tork as a possible replacement.) Not permitted to play on the group’s first two albums, Tork eventually played keyboards, bass guitar, banjo, harpsichord, and other instruments on subsequent recordings. For a pre-fab quartet, The Monkees (like the later Partridge Family) had some surprisingly good songs, and song writers. Their theme was written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, and the pair also composed “Last Train to Clarksville” and “Valleri.” Neil Diamond wrote “I’m a Believer” for the group, Jeff Barry “She Hangs Out,” Harry Nilsson “Daddy’s Song” and “Cuddly Toy” (although Nilsson’s own vocals for both are superior to Davey Jones’), Gerry Goffin and Carole King “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and the Kingston Trio’s John Stewart “Daydream Believer.”

André Previn at the piano resized

André Previn, 89.
Everything I might say about Previn, whom I venerate, I said previously on this blog. Please click the link.

Doris Day - Be Kind to Animals or I'll Kill You

Doris Day (née Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff), 97.
When I was a child, the smirking jokes about Day’s perennial virginity were still abroad in the land, as were (alas) her many bad comedies and the television series that seemed to change her character every season. Fortunately, she outlived the sniping, and the re-evaluation of her singing and her acting brought her some belated praise. (If you ever wish to become homicidally enraged at the otherwise only mildly annoying phrases “Big time” and “knocks it out of the park,” I recommend Tom Santopietro’s Considering Doris Day.) With the passage of time it is now possible to see the good in pictures like The Pajama Game, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Thrill of it All and even The Glass Bottom Boat and Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?, or at least how good Day is in them. Her singing, warm and surprisingly sexy and completed by an entrancing vibrato, never required defending, and her work for animal welfare mitigates her lifelong Republicanism.

The Leon Redbone Movie - 5) Editorial Opinion resized

A sketch for an animated Leon short I wanted to create in the early 1980s. The $3.50 admission price dates it as much as that roll of tickets in the box office. And I should have put a mustache or sunglasses on that fish-head.

Leon Redbone (née Dickran Gobalian), 69.
I was introduced to Redbone via my best friend in the early 1980s, when he played me the Double Time LP. I was uncertain exactly what we were hearing — was this an old black blues shouter? — and when Redbone sang “The Sheik of Araby” I was literally on my hands and knees, weeping and helpless with laughter. Once I recovered I began to appreciate what a splendid musician Leon (he was always “Leon” to us) really was, and how expressive his sometimes extremely odd vocalizations could be. I was also, being an aficionado of “old music,” impressed by his wide-ranging taste and knowledge of American popular song. Seeing him in a small club called The Pier in Raleigh, N.C. a few months later was a revelation; among other things, I was (my reaction to “Sheik” notwithstanding) unprepared for just how deadpan funny he could be, what with stick like taking Polaroids of his audience or murmuring, “Aw, you shouldn’t have” and “Oh, behave yourselves” after an ovation. And seeing him up close revealed what a remarkable guitarist he was. The next time we saw Leon live was at the large Memorial Hall on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus and the last at the much smaller ArtsCenter in Carrboro. That rise and declension seems almost a paradigm for fame in America: If we’d seen him a fourth time, it would likely have been in some dive-bar, with a blender drowning out his voice.

Redbone was born in Cyprus and raised in Canada, shocking many of us who assumed that, with that voice, and his pith helmets, shades, mutton-chops, bushy mustache, trim goatee and Malacca canes he simply had to be a native of New Orleans. Although he suffered from dementia, when he died earlier this year Leon left a typically impish self-obituary: “It is with heavy hearts we announce that early this morning, May 30th, 2019, Leon Redbone crossed the delta for that beautiful shore at the age of 127.”



IV. Nonesuch


Word Jazz 564848 resizedKen Nordine
, 98.
Utilizing his deep, resonant voice and such aggregations as the Fred Katz Group, Nordine created a unique form he called “Word Jazz,” which he successfully exploited on LP (Word Jazz, Son of Word Jazz, Love Words) and on his long-running public radio show. It was a weird hybrid. Not the jazz-poetry-and-music mix, but the tone that resulted; there were times when Nordine’s words wafted over you like a scented breeze and others at which he seemed the most pretentious, arty phony you ever heard. When, at the end of one of his tracks on the Disney Stay Awake album, he intones, both portentously and with a depressive’s sigh, “Damn… the circus,” you may at first not know whether to nod in recognition or burst out in derisive laughter at the clichéd obviousness of the line. I think the latter response is the more honest, but I suppose it’s all a matter of taste.

Damn… the choices.



*
Weirdly, Alison Bechdel now seems to get all or most of the credit for early “out and proud” cartooning but with, as they say, due respect to Bechdel’s impressive artistic and narrative gifts, one chalks this “Howard Who?” attitude up to the current arbiters of “Woke” culture who have proclaimed, loudly, and in their various manners, that the proper human equation is an automatic “#Girl = Good / Boy = Bad.” Especially when it comes to presidential nominees. (Always excepting you are Tulsi Gabbard, of course.)

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Pastiche génial: The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976)

Standard

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution 31906-1

By Scott Ross

A number of years ago Andre Previn told of overhearing a disgruntled patron at Tom Stoppard’s Travesties say to his wife as they were walking out, “I don’t see what’s so great about that play — it’s just a pistache!”

Ever since, I’ve thought that anonymous theatregoer’s malapropism has an even more charming quality than the word he meant, and “pistache” has become my preferred private term for something that goes beyond pastiche to create a unique work evoking the art of others, invoking a mix of historical figures to rub shoulders with fictitious ones, and fashioning from the mix a creation which goes far beyond mere cleverness or canny imitation; E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime perhaps represents the apogee of this ideal. And while Nicholas Meyer did not invent the Sherlock Holmes pastiche (there had been others: The Holmes/Jack-the-Ripper picture A Study in Terror in 1965, and some Nero Wolfe stories as far back as the 1940s) his 1974 novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution was surely the most successful to then, a movie adaptation virtually guaranteed by that success.

Holmes is, in a way, a natural for such enterprises; the Victorian era is so stuffed with remarkable personages, from the Queen herself, who makes a memorable appearance in Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s 1970 The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, to “Saucy Jacky.” (See also a later entry in the cinematic canon, the 1979 Murder by Decree, with Christopher Plummer a surprisingly outraged and passionate Holmes.) Indeed, after so cunningly yoking Holmes to Sigmund Freud in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Meyer conjured up an entire raft of contemporaneous figures of the Victorian theatre (G.B. Shaw, Bram Stoker, Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, W.S. Gilbert, Sir Arthur Sullivan, Oscar Wilde) for The West End Horror, his somber 1976 follow-up. And if they are rather more peripheral to that narrative than Freud is to its predecessor, they add immeasurably to the author’s conjuring of the milieu into which Holmes and Watson immerse themselves.

Other writers’ Holmesian pastiches have embraced such historical personae as Alfred Dreyfus (The Prisoner of the Devil by Michael Hardwick), Jack again (Michael Dibdin’s brief and disturbing The Last Sherlock Holmes Story), the young Bertrand Russell (The Case of the Philosopher’s Ring by Randall Collins) and Charles Dickens (Stephen Fry’s “The Adventure of the Laughing Jarvey” — and yes, both Fry and I are keenly aware that Dickens represents an anachronism; you’ll just have to trust us both on this one) as well as fictional counterparts like Dracula and Dr. Jekyll (in Loren D. Estelman’s two short and not wholly satisfying Sherlock Holmes vs. novels), Nayland Smith and Dr. Fu Manchu (in the much finer Ten Years Beyond Baker Street by Cay Van Ash) and even several entries revolving around Professor Moriarty. And in the early Aughts, two Holmes pastiches by important writers arrived within a year of each other: Michael Chabon’s portentously titled The Final Solution and Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind. The Cullins (later filmed under the insipid title Mr. Holmes) is completely satisfying while the Chabon is oblique and, as seems increasingly and depressingly true of this writer, all too satisfied with itself.

Author Nicholas Meyer

Only Meyer — whose Holmes grappled with the Phantom of the Opera in 1993 and is about to embark on an adventure concerning the spurious “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in October — really delivers the goods. He is pretty obviously steeped in what is somewhat stuffily and rather over-protectively referred to as “the Canon,” and his evocation of Conan Doyle’s style has the ring of perfect mimesis.* Not only does Meyer get Conan Doyle’s style down, in his descriptive prose, his dialogue and his wit, but in his thoughtfulness as well: In Meyer, Watson’s ruminations have depth and philosophical gravitas. They are the furthest thing from the hackery of mere connective literary tissue.

Meyer’s facility served him well when it came to re-imagining The Seven-Per-Cent Solution as a screenplay. Although there is nothing in the slightest wrong with the book, it does lack a certain glamour, and there is very little in it that feels light — two essentials for successful escapist fare at the movies, then as now. The two central plot strands of the novel (Holmes being tricked to Vienna for treatment by Freud of his cocaine addiction, and the abduction, escape and re-abduction of a blameless young woman) remain. The more ominous aspect — the fraudulent acquisition of an enormous supply of armaments with which the Kaiser may start a world war, 20 years in advance of that eventual conflagration — the filmmakers jettisoned, perhaps wisely; it’s more a literary conceit than a cinematic one, both darker and, because more abstract, less felicitous to the production of mass entertainment. For color, Meyer and his director, the highly variable Herbert Ross, made the abductee a noted theatrical figure, and added an unscrupulous Pasha and a mysterious, nasty little accomplice who nearly lures Holmes, Freud and Watson to their violent deaths. They also revised the book’s ending, embroidering an intriguingly romantic note to the close, and enriched, in an ingenious fashion, the chief reasons for Holmes’ sense of justice, his addiction and his obsession with Moriarty. Indeed, when you re-read the novel after seeing the picture you may,  during Homes’ final hypnotic state, think, “God, Meyer — you couldn’t see it, but you were so close!

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution - Toby

One of the great pleasures of revisiting The Seven-Per-Cent Solution in its Shout! Factory Blu-Ray edition is relishing the beauty of Oswald Morris’ deep, somewhat muted cinematography, its atmosphere enriched immeasurably by Ken Adam’s opulent production design. The picture was (wisely, I think) shot in the 1:85:1 aspect ratio rather than in 2:35:1 widescreen; the higher frame allows for a fullness of image denied the wider screen, and Morris’ are exceptionally rich even when he shoots through gauze, as he does rather noticeably whenever Vanessa Redgrave is on-screen. Another is the sheer wit and intelligence of a movie intended solely as light popular escapist fare, something American culture has lost, seemingly without hope of retrieval: Imagine even a modestly budgeted studio movie today, outside of science fiction, containing a casual use of the word “ratiocination.”

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution - Arkin, Williamson

As in 1976, the first glimpse of Nicol Williamson as Holmes is startling, used as we were then to seeing actors like Basil Rathbone, John Barrymore, Peter Cushing, John Neville and Robert Stephens — or even Douglas Wilmer, in Gene Wilder’s The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother — with the requisite cragginess to evoke Sidney Paget’s Strand Magazine illustrations (themselves cannily reproduced in the opening titles); we were greeted instead by a tall Scot with resolutely regular features. The moment he begins to speak, however, babbling at Robert Duvall’s Watson about the pervading evil of Moriarty with sweaty, cocaine-induced mania, all doubts are cheerfully cast aside. We can relax; we’re in good hands. A few similar doubts lingered about Duvall who, although he looks splendidly Wastonian, intones his initial lines in a somewhat studied, self-consciously Oxfordian accent. Yet this too becomes, like Williamson’s famously glottal vocal timbre, merely a matter of difference: This is not going to be a repetition of that famous double-act of clipped Rathbone and bumbling Nigel Bruce. Only once does this Watson make an observation, concerning a trail of long-stemmed lilies (“Perhaps she was wearing them in her hair”) of the type that has so often made the good doctor a figure of ridicule. I’ve always thought the concept of the blundering Watson a brazenly false one; if the doctor was as asinine a fuddlehead as Bruce portrayed him, would a man as bright and acerbic as Holmes have bothered with him for a minute?

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution - Duvall, Arkin, Williamson watch

No uncertainty, however brief, attached itself to Alan Arkin’s extraordinary performance as Freud then, or does so now. Whether Freud was as warm as Arkin’s portrayal renders him is less important than the intelligence and honor with which this treasurable actor embodies him. And with his black beard and stylish wig, Arkin has never cut so attractive a figure as he does here. The picture’s most cunning bit of casting, however, is that of Laurence Olivier as a disheveled, timorous and inconsequential Moriarty. Olivier had lived so long with the mantle “Greatest Actor in the World” attached to him that it was easy to forget in those days what a splendid comedian he could be, perhaps especially since his most recent screen appearance at the time was as the quietly terrifying old Nazi of Marathon Man.

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution - Oliver, Duvall

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

As Fraulein Deveraux, the victim of the kidnap plot, Redgrave is a dream of beauty, even when ravaged by captivity and the effects of forced addiction. Long before her actual appearance we glimpse her, in a Mucha-like poster reminiscent of that Art Nouveau master’s depictions of Sara Bernhardt, and the comparison suits her perfectly, as do those lilies the character adores. I have long thought Redgrave the most ethereal of all actresses, and she floats through The Seven-Per-Cent Solution like a goddess of unearthly pulchritude. I don’t know how so serious an actor is able to speak a line like, “A woman as beautiful as I, has seen everything fearful by age seventeen” without blushing in embarrassment, much less making us believe she believes it, and the small cry Redgrave gives when she realizes she has been made an addict again contains within it whole worlds of despairing disbelief.

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution - Duval, Williamson, Redgrave and Arkin

The supporting roles are almost too well cast, leaving us wanting far more of such radiant figures as Samantha Eggar (Mrs. Watson), Georgia Brown (Mrs. Freud), Anna Quayle (as the maid Frida) and, although he is both warmer and less corpulent than Conan Doyle’s description, Charles Gray as Mycroft. Joel Grey, who has only a handful of brief lines, makes a marvelously off-center figure of mystery as the homicidal little brigand, Jeremy Kemp is an appropriately haughty and sneering villain, and Régine gets to sing a tantalizing bit of the Stephen Sondheim “Madame’s Song,” known after its more fulsome appearance in Side by Side by Sondheim as “I Never Do Anything Twice.” (Kemp, interestingly, later played the despicable Dr. Roylott in the “Speckled Band” episode of the Jeremy Brett Holmes series, and the name “Roylott” is invoked here as well, although in a far less sinister context.) And if Watson was at pains to tell us that the redoubtable Toby was not, as he is depicted here, a bloodhound, the magnificent beast who portrays him in the picture performs the role so well he may surely be excused the fact of his breed.

Amsel_sevenpercentsolution

The great Richard Amsel’s initial pass on the Muchaesque poster art. He would later place Redgrave above Williamson and Arkin, remove Olivier’s face in favor of just his inscrutable hooded eyes, and take away the tempter’s cup.

Ross, who could be terribly good when he wasn’t indulging in (highly suspicious) gay-baiting, or cranking out bad Neil Simon adaptations, proves wholly up to the task here, and The Seven-Per-Cent Solution looks as good as any American movie of its time. The picture’s art director (Peter Lamont) and costume designer (Alan Barrett) surely share in that credit, and while I don’t know who designed the cocaine-withdrawal nightmares Williamson’s Holmes endures, I suspect Ken Adam had something to do with it. In any case, Meyer’s conception is both disturbing and witty, calling forth as it does surrealist images from not only The Hound of the Baskervilles but “The Red-Headed League” and “The Speckled Band,” Roylott’s Indian swamp adder turning into Moriarty, an effect accomplished by Chris Barnes with rapid “subliminal” cutting. (Although no especial fan of c.g.i. myself, I imagine this might be more satisfyingly done today with computer animation.) Equally effective is the marvelous score by John Addison, anchored to an appropriate —  and appropriately melancholy — violin theme, a secondary Viennese waltz which can when necessary mutate into a more menacing state, and a tertiary Ottoman theme played on what I assume is a qanun or something very like. Astonishingly, this delightful score was only released at the time on vinyl in a composer’s LP, which was later transferred to CD along with Addison’s delicious score for Sleuth, but has never been given an official release.

Sevenpercentsolution9

Holmes in the extremis of withdrawal.

In an otherwise curiously apologetic interview on the Shout! release, Nicholas Meyer claims credit for casting Duvall, certain the actor would provide to the picture an anti-Nigel Bruce Watson. But I am not sure for what, given the splendor both of this movie and his own contributions to it, Meyer could possibly feel the need to apologize; this almost profligately entertaining pistache owes him everything.


*Fry’s effort is the only one I’ve encountered that can truly challenge Meyer, leaving one to wish he would consider a full-length Holmesian adventure. But I strongly suspect that, for Fry, “The Laughing Jarvey” was the literary equivalent of a schoolboy jape, never to be repeated.


Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

On Completing “Bleak House”

Standard

By Scott Ross

Written for another, now defunct, blog in April of 2007.

This morning over coffee I finished reading Bleak House, Charles Dickens’ great, dark satire on the Court of Chancery. What a truly satisfying experience it’s been, reading this novel: Seldom have nearly 1,000 pages of narrative prose passed through my eager fingers with such ease and enjoyment. The book places neatly with titles like The Magnificent Ambersons, East of Eden, The Eighth Day, The Great Gatsby and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie among the great readings of my life. I have seldom encountered a novel I loved in quite this way; I am wholly sated, as opposed to completing Nicholas Nickleby and feeling, however emotionally moved, rather over-fed.

Dark, sometimes brooding, often wonderfully comic, and shot through with a feeling for people and their essential humanity, so that even such a redoubtable figure as the ornately and foolishly pompous, stern, dragon-like Lord Dedlock winds up surprising us, and himself, with real and unexpected compassion… awoken too late, alas, to stop the dire fate of Lady Dedlock, who (I presume) thinks she knows him so well that she can never find forgiveness in him, which shows (again, I think) that he has hidden his true feelings so well that even his wife cannot guess at them. And then there is Richard Carstone, driven to a kind of hopeful madness by that dread legal joke of the Chancery court, the case of “Jarndyce & Jarndyce”— the very name itself  so close to “jaundice”— and utterly defeated when, at its close, there is only a void, legal costs having eaten the principle to nothing; the harried Mr. Snagsby, decent and kind-hearted but weighted down by his harridan of a wife; poor Jo, the young crossing-sweeper, so ill-used by society and so unwittingly the cause of Esther Sommerson’s facial disfigurement; Mr. Krook, whom one never quite gets the measure of and who is done in at last though Spontaneous Combustion(!); Mr. Gridley and Miss Flite, each driven insane by the court of Chancery, Mr. Gridley to the extreme of breaking down entirely, Miss Flite to a genteel, kindly (yet all-too-knowing) madness; and of course, Lady Dedlock, shutting away all lightness and feeling to hide her guilt.

Then, too, the unsavory (or at least, questionable) characters: Horace Skimpole, who does so much damage to others in his studied “infancy,” proclaiming he is wholly a child yet blithely and calculatedly taking as much from anyone as he can get; Mr. Vholes, ever with his “shoulder to the wheel,” grinding someone into dust; Mr. Guppy, who has no compunction against attempting an advantageous marriage or even blackmail as it suits him; Mr. Turveytop, so wholly concerned with his legendary (in his own mind in any case) “Deportment” that the world must owe him a living (or at least, his poor wife, done to death by work, and his son Prince and daughter-in-law Caddy, equally yoked to his dancing school and the perpetual upkeep of his noxious self); Hortense, the haughty French maid — is there any other kind? — whose hatred undoes so many; Mrs. Snagsby, so determined to be injured by something her husband has done she becomes convinced he deceives her at every turn; Mr. Chadband the orating minister (whom the reader may be forgiven for wishing to strangle every time he speaks); Caddy’s mother Mrs. Jellyby, concerned only with her endless correspondence on Africa, to the complete ignoring of her distracted husband and house full of children perpetually falling down stairs; the miserly, decrepit Mr. Smallweed, who bounces pillows off the head of his senile old wife and whose grasping claws are into any and everything that can give him even a little profit; and finally the serpentine Mr. Tulkinghorn, who is responsible in one way or another for everything that occurs and for whom no one weeps when he is found murdered.

And yet it is a book of lightness, too: Mrs. Rouncewell, the Dedlock housekeeper, who adds up to a great deal more than simple devotion to her employers; Mr. Bucket, the indefatigable police Inspector, whom one begins with liking, moves to distrusting, and ends by appreciating enormously, despite his unwitting hand in the eventual death of young Jo; Mr. George, never worthy in his own eyes yet a fountain of solace to others; the wonderful Bagnets — “The Old Girl” who always sees the right path, and her husband, who declaims her worth behind her back, swears he never tells her to her face because “Discipline must be maintained!” yet is constantly doing exactly that because he can’t help it… and meanwhile asking the Old Girl to give out with “his” opinion on every matter; the occasionally apoplectic Mr. Boythorn, ever ready either to laugh or to damn; Charly, the orphan girl who takes on monstrous amounts of work without complaining and finally comes into grace; Mr. Woodcourt, the gentle doctor who quietly dispenses a healing balm of dignity and affection to everyone he touches; Esther, who loves without restraint and yet is wholly unable to see how much love she inspires in others; and dear, kind John Jarndyce, master of Bleak House — a deliberate misnomer if ever there was one — ready to flee at the first sign of thanks for any of the (multitudinous) good deeds he dispenses without a thought.

In all, an almost incredibly rich gallery of characters, painted in marvelous hues of complexity and, occasionally, sheer giddy delight. I almost wish I had held off reading it, because there are so many other Dickens novels I hope to crack, and it would have been a lovely benediction to have beheld this one only at the last.

Text copyright 2007, 2019 by Scott Ross

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

Standard

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.

Christopher Isherwood_zps544838fd resized

Christopher Isherwood in the early 1930s.

Cabaret - Michael York

Michael York as Christopher Isherwood, more or less.

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.

Cabaret - Screw Maximilian

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

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!

Dancin - Timothy Scott Valerie - Jean Miller. Cynthia Onrubia. Martha Swope
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.

Timothy Scott

Timothy Scott’s Playbill headshot.

scott-by-rowell-1980-img_0003

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

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!”

money.jpg

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.

Liza with a Z (LP)


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.

Fosse - Wasson

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.

bob-fosse

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.

dancinorig460

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

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.

pippin-chorus

Ben Vereen and the Players in Pippin.

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.

dancin-26-1e041-riedel1-300x250.jpg

Fosse’s ambisexual corps in Dancin’.

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.

19861-takeoffwithusfosse

The mesmerizing male pas de deux in All That Jazz.

Which brings us rather neatly to the major disappointment of Fosse: While film-freak Wasson illuminates the making of
Bob Fosse’s quartet of movies — all that “backstage stuff” — with admirable detail and scholarship, the finished products are not treated

Cabaret1 -Manage

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

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.

filmmag1-746x1024

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

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

There is a great deal to admire about Fosse, but I wish the man whose best movies turned my head around and altered my world and whose self-indulgent, occasionally vulgar but 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.

Sweet Charity (1969)Directed by Bob FosseShown on set: Bob Fosse

Sweet Charity (1969): Fosse on set, demonstrating the spotlight dance in “If They Could See Me Now” for Shirley MacLaine. The U.S. Postal Service commemorative Fosse stamp uses this image of him.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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

Standard

By Scott Ross

The Life and Times of Porgy and Bess

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.

Chapin - Everything Was Possible

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

Don Dunn, The Making of No, No, Nanette.  This one is dated by Davis’ smug, condescending and, frankly, bitchy remarks about “homos” in the theatre, and his frequent imputations to the many gay men involved in this successful revival of comically swish attitudes and over-the-top, camp enthusiasms. 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.

The Season

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

besttoptheriseandfall-180814035241-thumbnail-4

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

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

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

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

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

Hirschfeld on Line


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Journey to the Center of the Theatre resized

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.

Notes on a Cowardly Lion resized

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

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

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

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

Tom - The Unknown Tennessee Williams resized

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

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

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

Who Put the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz - Yip Harburg, Lyricist

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

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

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

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

The Fireside Companion to the Theatre

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

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

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

The Theatre Art of Boris Aronson resized

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

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

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

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

Wonder of Wonders A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof

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

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

No Applause — Just Throw Money The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous resized

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.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2018/04/17/the-long-audition-fosse-me-and-sam-wassons-fosse-2/

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.

Zadan - Sondheim and Co. resized

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

Vacuum-packed literary criticism, Or: No there there

Standard

By Scott Ross

My current reading is Kevin Baker’s Dreamland, a pastiche that posits the way various lives, real and imagined, intersect in New York City during the early years of the 20th century. I picked up this fat paperback at my favorite second-hand bookshop after a cursory glance at the back cover indicated it was comparable to E.L. Doctor’s Ragtime, one of my very favorite American novels. Not that I wanted Ragtime Redux; few things are more dispiriting than bloated imitation. But having recently fallen in love with Helene Wecker’s similarly placed, rhapsodic fantasy The Golem and the Jinni, I was in the mood to discover how another writer, new to me, tackled what is in many ways a defining period of recent history, terrifying in its (to us moderns) jaw-dropping poverty and rampant criminality.*

Dreamland cover

Setting aside for the moment my reactions to Dreamland, I was struck, on first sitting down with it, by a lengthy quotation on the back cover, from a review in Esquire — or rather, by one particular observation by an unidentified critic that positively maddened me. “Dickensian in scope and intellectual breadth,” writes the anonymous scribbler, “Kevin Baker’s (dare it be said?) masterpiece is Ragtime but without the sprawling misanthropy; Tom Wolfe but with characters that are human, not merely theoretical; Dreiser but superbly written; Sinclair Lewis but with a mystic’s heart.”

I cannot quarrel with the reference to Wolfe, and admit to a profound ignorance regarding both Dreiser and Lewis, only one of whose novels I’ve read. But I admire Doctorow almost inordinately as a stylist, and Ragtime in particular as an example of the unfettered brilliance of a prose-poet on a par with the Fitzgerald of The Great Gatsby and a literary experimenter on the order of a modern Faulkner. The snideness of the critical remark aside, the more I read of Kevin Baker’s (dare it be said?) masterpiece, the more incensed I became on Doctorow’s behalf.

There is scarcely a page of Dreamland that does not present some fresh atrocity perpetrated on either an animal or a human being, occasionally both at once. This is not a criticism. It was a brutal time, and an especially brutal place. Several years ago New York magazine printed an excerpt from Luc Sante’s Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York entitled “These Are the Good Old Days,” in which the stunningly casual horror of the City’s haunts from 1840-1920 as described by Sante was the stuff of nightmares, particularly in its depiction of the many ways one could disappear forever in the Bowery — not coincidentally the setting for much of Baker’s novel.

Sante’s piece was a vision of Hell undreamt by Dante, where life was cheap and violent death as common as the rats and the cockroaches and the pestilent disease that made survival past infancy something of a miracle in itself. Baker’s world is that of Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives, of obscene Tammany corruption running hand-in-glove with appallingly cavalier capitalist exploitation, of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and cops beating female strikers with impunity, where even the smallest pleasure is paid for with grotesquerie and humiliation. No serious writer — and Baker, whatever my reservations about the ultimate worth of the tale he’s telling, is certainly that — could, describing the place, avoid steeping the reader in all that was vile and insupportable about it.

But what about that “sprawling misanthropy” of Doctorow’s? I Googled the review in question, seeking an explanation, and locating the critique on the Esquire webpage. (“A Jew, a Lithuanian, and an Erudite Dwarf,” March 1, 1999.) There was the review, all 300 words of it, by one Adrienne Miller, a former Esquire Fiction Editor. Would Miller, in the space allotted, define her terms? She would not. She merely hurls her little semantic Anarchist’s bomb at Doctorow et al., and moves on.

Ragtime cover

Given that Ragtime is, for all its stylistic dazzle, one of the most achingly humane novels of the past 40 years, and taking into account the historical parameters common both to it and to Dreamland, whence Doctorow’s “sprawling misanthropy”? Or is that Miller, in common with so many of her ilk, is, as I suspect, on the one hand parading her erudition (“Look! I’ve read Doctorow, Wolfe, Dreiser and Lewis!”) and on the other — and secure in the knowledge that few readers will be willing to admit that they don’t know what the hell she’s talking about — tossing wild, context-free and utterly unfathomable brickbats at her literary betters? We’ve seen this sort of thing before: The sweeping put-down that says, Logic, or even rudimentary rules of composition, be damned: I’m slapping that pesky author [or artist, or filmmaker, or composer] down, and the devil take the meaning along with the hindmost: The off-hand insult that challenges without recourse to anything like precedence or example or even a simple definition of terms.

Even presuming one has a passing knowledge of the work of the artist being referred to, Miller’s statement represents a kind of academic and critical shorthand that, on its face, and even below the skin, means absolutely nothing. It’s the literary equivalent of schoolyard bullying. And it’s practiced all too bloody often. (John Lahr used to do it all the time, in the pages of the New Yorker.) I’m not talking about fairness here… although that, too, is in short supply. Nor is my veneration of Ragtime definitive; it’s merely how Doctorow’s novel strikes me, viscerally, emotionally and intellectually. You’re free to find it meretricious, or self-consciously arty, or even misanthropic if it strikes you so, but for the love of critical honesty, not to mention readability, at least have the decency to explain your goddamn terms. Tellingly, Miller does so for Wolfe (“with characters that are human, not merely theoretical”), with Dreiser, and with Lewis; Doctorow’s magnum opus she merely dismisses, as “sprawlingly misanthropic.” In what way? No, sorry — Madame cannot be bothered.

To quote E.B. White in another context: If this is what passes for serious criticism now, I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.

I say it's spinach - Carl Rose and E B White


*Poverty in 21st century America is every bit as pervasive, if not indeed even more so, only with a few more modern conveniences… which the complacent, of course, very much hold against those poorer than they.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

That sinking feeling: Waiting for the epithet (Or, “Frickin’ Faggot!”)

Standard

By Scott Ross

In my 1930s Hollywood play The Dogs of Foo, the character Paul Lehrmann, based slightly on George Cukor, confronts his leading actress on the set of the movie they’re shooting. She’s just ordered Paul’s young assistant, whom she suspects, quite accurately, is also his lover, to carry a note for her. Paul steps in, reminding his star that “Johnny takes orders from me, Lita, not from you.”

“And what else does he take from you?” She snaps back. “Dick-tation?”

PAUL: Sooner or later, it always comes out, doesn’t it?
LITA: Paulie—
PAUL: Who needs vino for veritas?
LITA: I didn’t mean it, Paulie. I’m upset, I’m sorry.
PAUL: They always are — after they’ve said it. Never before, never during, but always, always after.

If you, as they say when pussyfooting, happen to be gay, much of your leisure time is spent waiting for that insidious and always hovering other shoe to drop. Especially when, as I do, you enjoy reading old novels and perusing old movies.

For the purposes of this essay, let us define “old” not as a month or two ago, or however long it now takes the average American to forget, or lose interest, in, anything, but as from, say, the early 1980s backward. Although as late as 2003, in The Frumious Bandersnatch, Ed McBain rather gratuitously — and falsely, I think — has a teenage girl singer think toward her music-video dance partner (when, asked by her how she looks in her fantasy get-up, he has the effrontery to reply, “Hot!”) the phrase “Frickin’ faggot.” That isn’t the character thinking, it’s the author.

No matter how sterling the qualities of the people involved, or how identifiably “liberal” they may be (not that I presume the author of the 87th Precinct series was anything like) sooner or later the reader or viewer of an older novel or movie written or directed by someone he or she admires is going to be hit with one of the many lurking epithets. Faggot. Queer. Sissy. Nance. Or, in the 1956 McBain entry The Mugger I began reading as I was pondering this very subject, “pansy.” (“Faggot” shows up a few pages later. Why? Because the eponymous felon has the odd habit, after assaulting and robbing his female victims, of bowing from the waist and saying, “Clifford thanks you, madam.” It isn’t merely the strangeness of this post-violation ritual that elicits so much speculation concerning his sexuality but his very name. Clifford. Faggy, right? A real man would presumably call himself “Cliff.”)

peters - pawnbroker 9644_3

Brock Peters in The Pawnbroker

Sometimes it isn’t the words themselves that you anticipate with dread but the characters — usually, although not always, peripheral. Yesterday afternoon I watched, with a good friend, the 1965 movie of Edward Lewis’ The Pawnbroker. We were both flabbergasted by the unspoken allusions to queerdom in the film, and the inescapable sense we both had of a strange, coded homophobia in its undercurrent. First: The character of Rodriguez, the studiedly elegant gangster for whom Rod Steiger’s Shoah-haunted broker, Sol Nazerman, acts as a money-launderer. (Although he bears a Latin surname, the character is played by the unmistakably, and I think beautifully, African-looking Brock Peters. But let that pass…) In Rodriguez’s first on-screen appearance, we see him waited upon by a young blond man. At the climax of his second, a pivotal scene in which he cajoles, threatens and humiliates Nazerman, the young white man again appears and climbs the staircase of Rodriguez’ large and well-appointed apartment. Rodriguez trails him up the steps, in what to our rather dazed eyes could only be an indication that the pair is ascending to the bedroom.

Second: The aging, heavily-set and curiously undulating dancer at the club Nazerman’s assistant (Jaime Sánchez) goes to with his black girlfriend (Thelma Oliver) and who is revealed at the end of her set to be a middle-aged drag-queen. Third: Among the many Harlem regulars who appear in Nazerman’s shop hoping to barter furnishings and personal items to make their untenable present just a jot less desperate is a man of indeterminate age — he might be anywhere from 30 to 50 — who brings in, first, an award he won from a field of (he says) 22,000 entrants and, later, a pair of bronzed baby shoes we can only assume are his own. Although neither this character nor the un-credited actor who plays him exactly screams “Fag!” I suspect it would take a veritable social hermit to miss the implications. And at least, unlike Rodriguez, this sad, defeated specimen of lower-depths humanity is not a threat, and in his touching hopefulness at the prospect of digging out yet one small turnip from a diminishing store to sustain his otherwise hopeless existence he is no different from the lonely, intellectual and prating elderly gentleman played the great Juano Hernandez who comes to Nazerman’s pawnshop less to scare up a few pfennigs than to connect, however tenuously, with another human being. Nor, indeed from any of Sol’s downtrodden regulars.

500px-Pawnbroker10_sm

Charles Dierkop, with a plethora of penis substitutes, in The Pawnbroker.

Which brings us to the fourth, and by far most disturbing, example of the seamy homo underbelly of The Pawnbroker. Sánchez decides to kick over Nazerman’s safe and enlists the aid of an old associate, played by Raymond St. Jacques. The night before the theft we are given a glimpse of St. Jacques’ hoodlum pal, played by the instantly identifiable, flat-nosed Charles Dierkop, playing with his pistol while thumbing through what in those antediluvian days, and to avoid legal entanglements with the U.S. Postal Service, were called “male physique” magazines. Did I mention that, in addition to clutching the gun, he’s holding another obvious penis substitute, in this case a harmonica, in his mouth? That’s rather overlarding the symbolism by half, isn’t it?

What was Lumet thinking? What, if these elements also make a showing in the novel, was Lewis? What the hell was everyone on???

Anent The Pawnbroker: Interestingly, in life — to use Orson Welles’ delightful phrase — both St. Jacques and Peters were themselves gay. (Although St. Jacques, notably closeted and ultimately a victim of AIDS, legally adopted his younger lover.) One wonders how they felt about all this. Especially as, at that time, being both black and actors was more than marginalization enough for one lifetime.


Boys and Girls 6978724-M

Last winter I undertook a novel I’d long avoided, by one of the favorite writers of my youth: William Goldman’s Boys and Girls Together of 1964. While the author, interestingly, depicts only two heterosexual relationships among his quartet of main characters, and while none of these liaisons can in any reasonable way be called ideal (and while none of the boys or girls is a model of probity or psychic wellness) it is to the novel’s gay characters that the worst degradations accrue. In the preface to a recent reissue, Goldman admitted he’d done badly by them. But short of wholesale revision of the kind no author would wish to undertake on an old book — and certainly not in his 70s — I don’t see how even a writer of Goldman’s imagination could undo the damage. I do know I could have lived the rest of my life happily without reading that final chapter about Aaron. As it is, I doubt now I’ll ever be able to block out its deeply unpleasant memory.

Goldman is interesting in that his subsequent non-fiction book on the Broadway scene, The Season, constitutes one of the few important cases from the time (1968) of a heterosexual writer seriously considering the case of gay playwrights, the subterfuge they felt it necessary to indulge in at least as far as their work was concerned, and the prevailing pop culture of what Goldman would not have known then to call “heterosexism” that surrounded them. (Christopher Isherwood used to call the majority, not without reason, “the heterosexual dictatorship.”) Goldman’s was one of the rare calls for openness in that period, so I’m not singling him out for approbation. But for a man who (with his gifted brother James) was a one-time musical theatre librettist and who, presumably, both knew and worked with any number of homosexual men, to get an entire novel’s worth of queer characters so wrong is telling.

rebelwithoutacause_013

It can be a relief of nearly cataclysmic proportions when, in the middle of a popular novel of even recent antiquity, one encounters the slightest positive portrayal. In the late James Clavell’s series of Eastern novels (Shogun, Tai-Pan, Gai-Jin, etc.) the reader runs across homosexual characters with fair regularity and, while the Westerners in the books may express disgust or derision, their Oriental counterparts accept the difference with a shrug. One learns, after painful experience, to look (and feel disproportionately grateful) for the little things. In, for example, the decidedly heterosexual The Seven Year Itch (1955) George Axelrod and Billy Wilder have Marilyn Monroe casually mention the two men who live upstairs from her. They’re interior decorators, and never seen (making them even more invisible than the then most visible homo of the period, the faceless Sebastian Venable in Suddenly, Last Summer) and while their profession is certainly a coded inference of their being a couple of fags, at least they’re mentioned. Contrast this with Neil Simon who, a full decade later, has Paul in Barefoot in the Park sneer, “”In Apartment C are the Boscos, Mr. And Mrs. J. Bosco [… ] A lovely young couple of the same sex. No one knows which one that is.” The queers-next-door are just there for a dirty snicker. The same years as Itch, Sal Mineo would create what is arguably the first important homosexual character in a mainstream movie, the doomed Plato of the gay Stewart Stern and the bisexual Nicholas Ray’s influential Rebel Without a Cause, but again you have to pay fairly close attention. (Note, for example, the Alan Ladd pin-up in his high school locker.) And since he’s only the queer-boy, Plato’s violent death isn’t even properly mourned by his best friend in that overrated potboiler’s ludicrous finale (“Mom, Dad… This is Judy…”)

red river rr7 edit

Red River: John Ireland and Montgomery Clift compare firearms… I think.

While some very good authors (Ross MacDonald in his Lew Archer novels, for one) toss fags into the mix as an especially unsavory element of their rotgut ragouts, others, such as Raymond Chandler, seem to be working out more something personal, if coded to the point of the subliminal. Chandler was no friend to the faggot, yet one of his most deeply felt Philip Marlowe novels (The Long Goodbye) seems to hinge on Marlowe’s homoerotic friendship with Terry Lennox. They damn near meet-cute, and there is absolutely no reason for their instant liking of each other unless it involves the physical. Yet I feel sure that, like the man who made the best extant movie of one of his books, Chandler (or Marlowe, anyway) would have presented a knuckle-sandwich to anyone who suggested such a thing, just as Howard Hawks was known to dismiss film critics who commented on the nearly incessant, and occasionally risible, instances of intense male friendship in his movies: The infamous scene of John Ireland and Montgomery Clift comparing pistols in Red River springs instantly to mind, and the entire, and central, Clift/John Wayne antagonism in that movie seems, pretty clearly, a sublimation of unspoken erotic and emotional desire.

Annex-Bogart-Humphrey-Maltese-Falcon-The_04

The Maltese Falcon: Bogart as Spade with Elisha Cook, Jr. as Wilmur.

Recently, a good friend asked me if I found the gay characters in The Maltese Falcon offensive. I replied that, at least as far as the movie was concerned, I was more amused than anything else. It simply tickles me that, in 1941, John Huston (and in his debut as a writer-director, no less) actually got away with a supporting cast made up entirely of fairies: The lavender-scented Joel Cairo, the garrulous Kasper Gutman and, not incidentally, The Fat Man’s ephebe, Wilmer. It amuses me as well, as it did my friend, that so many ignoramuses have assumed the word “gunsel” was ’30s street patois for “cheap, gun-toting young hood,” and that it has come to mean that, when in fact it refers to a kept-boy: The passive partner in anal intercourse. Sam Spade knew it, and so did Wilmur; it’s why Wilmur gets so angry whenever Spade refers to him by that epithet. And as one who enjoys every subterfuge smart filmmakers used in those dread days of official, Catholic-driven, censorship, my delight when someone like Huston could pull the wool over the Breen Office’s collective eyes — busily gyrating as they were for any moist sign of immorality — far outweighs my sense of hurt.

But I appear to have wandered far afield. My point is that every gay reader, or viewer, knows, and dreads, that moment when a writer he admires or a movie he’s enjoying, turns against him. And turns in a more deeply unsettling way than against nearly any reader or viewer aside from women — who, unless they’re brain and/or soul-dead, or have otherwise inured themselves to insult know that sinking sensation all too well: That soul-chilling moment when they do it to you again. That nano-second when you sense it coming, and cringe in advance, and hope against all hope that your instincts will be proven wrong. That stomach-churning instant when a writer or filmmaker instantaneously devolves from your erudite companion to your sudden, and very possibly lifelong, nemesis. And, unlike the actress in my play, they are never in the least sorry for it afterward.

As Paul Lehrmann asks, and answers, at the end of The Dogs of Foo, “Do you know the Hollywood definition of a faggot? A homosexual gentleman who’s just left the room.”


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross