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

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By Scott Ross

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

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

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

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

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

Melvyn Douglas weighing the facts of his life.

Melvyn Douglas weighing the facts of his life.

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

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

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

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

 

A Few Second Thoughts on The Changeling, May 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

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

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By Scott Ross

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

(Warning: Memory ahead.)

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

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

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Michael York as Christopher Isherwood, more or less.

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Isherwood around the time of his days in Berlin.

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

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

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

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

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

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Timothy Scott’s Playbill headshot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ben Vereen and the Players in Pippin.

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

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Fosse’s ambisexual corps in Dancin’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

Everything else is just marking time.

1Bob Fosse – All That Jazz

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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

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By Scott Ross

fiddler poster

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

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

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

 

Great Performances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great Performances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Neva Small as Chava.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The

The “Chava Ballet.”

The famous

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

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

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

Exodus: The haunting finale.

Exodus: The haunting finale.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

 

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

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

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

Breaking Down the Walls: Sheldon Harnick at 90

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Note: Harnick will be 94 this June.

By Scott Ross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The protean Tom Bosley inspires the working poor in

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

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

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

Hacks: Up Your Honor, bit by bit…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hal Linden in

Hal Linden in “The Rothschilds.”

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

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

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

One master looks at another: Harnick by Hirschfeld.

One master looks at another: Harnick by Hirschfeld.

Lyric copyrights: Sheldon Harnick

Al other text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

The native eloquence of the fog people: Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962)

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By Scott Ross

By critical consensus at least, Long Day’s Journey into Night ranks as the Great American Play. But one needn’t necessarily be a critic, or susceptible to the official canon, to attain reverence for Eugene O’Neill’s ultimate (in both senses of the word) cri-de-couer. One need only read or — preferably — see it.

The poster for the 1956 American premiere.

The poster for the 1956 American premiere.

Autobiography abounds in our native theatre, of course, whether by hint or inference. Seldom, however, has an American playwright drawn so extensively on his own past and family as O’Neill does here, nor to such coruscating effect. Although it may be argued quite convincingly that the author is not as hard on himself, via his dramatic alter ego, as he is on his mother, father and older brother, there is supple evidence that he did not let himself entirely off the piercing hook on which he transfixes the wriggling, doomed, damned Tyrones — who are all the more pitiably human in that they know precisely how doomed, and damned, they are.

Before his Parkinson’s-like cerebellar cortical atrophy completely debilitated him, O’Neill somehow managed to complete More Stately Mansions, A Touch of the Poet, A Moon for the Misbegotten, The Iceman Cometh and this, his masterwork, all between 1939 and 1942. Such a prodigious — indeed, Herculean — undertaking is commensurate, if in a smaller way, to Shakespeare’s comparable achievement. And this during a time in which the playwright had been largely ignored, if not exactly forgotten, by most of his contemporaries. Had his own wishes in the matter of publication been adhered to, his late masterwork might not have been discovered until 1979. (Imagine!) Thankfully, O’Neill’s widow, the formidable Carlotta Monterey, ignored her husband’s instructions, and the first production of Long Day’s Journey made its appearance in America a mere three years after his death, the same year its director, José Quintero, mounted his production of Iceman, re-establishing it as a somewhat ponderous yet undeniable force and spearheading O’Neill’s redemptive posthumous rediscovery.

Long Day’s Journey into Night, “this old work of sorrow, written in tears and blood,” as the playwright described it in his dedication of the manuscript to Carlotta, is an act both of excoriation and extirpation. Even, if you like, of exorcism, although I doubt attempting to forgive his family in this manner for its many sins, both of omission and commission (a fine distinction for a lapsed Catholic like O’Neill) was entirely or even partially successful. Some psychic wounds are simply too firmly embedded ever to be eradicated. Nowhere near as ambitious, formally, as Iceman, the play is nevertheless entirely successful, and satisfying, on its own less expansive virtues. Indeed, more successful; its very autobiographical specificity allows it to achieve something beyond the O’Neill of The Iceman Cometh. From the parochial — a family in perpetual Strindbergian combat — Long Day’s Journey into Night emerges, finally, as wholly universal.

There has been some careless talk of turning the play into an opera but this, if not sacrilegious, is surely redundant. O’Neill may not have become the poet of his youthful ambitions (his stand-in, Edmund, remarks, when father James suggests he has the makings of a poet, “No, I’m afraid I’m like the guy who is always panhandling for a smoke. He hasn’t even got the makings. He’s got only the habit.”) but he certainly had the innate musicality. The play itself is operatic, both in its length and its breadth, but the four individuals in it form an intimate chamber ensemble of a twisting complexity that breaks the boundaries of formalization: Now a quartet, now a series of duets, now a solo, then more duets, another trio and finally, devastatingly, a quartet once more. And in each movement the same recriminations and self-delusions are raised, the same accusations aired and hurts inflicted, the same apologies given, the same uneasy truces reached, and tremulously maintained. Less perhaps a string quartet then, than an endless battle fought among four armies of one, none of its generals ever admitting ultimate defeat or surrender, each limping off to lick his or her wounds before (to use O’Neill’s phrases) stammering and stumbling on to the next bloody engagement. The parts, too, as with the best dramatic work, are orchestral, ranging between winds and strings, the players alternating on first one instrument and then another. Sonorous tubas exchange themselves for keening oboes or whingeing bassoons as mood dictates. Or are these four antagonists polymorphous/polyphonic singers, basso-profundo giving way to lyric soprano, tenor and baritone to alto?

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The CD reissue of the 1971 production starring the great Robert Ryan and Geraldine Fitzgerald as James and Mary Tyrone.

You’ll have to excuse my very mixed metaphors; this play, like the greatest works of art, has a way of making you thinks in those terms, knowing that mere descriptive prose can never begin to do the job. “I couldn’t touch what I tried to tell you just now,” Edmund says to James, in the exchange cited above. “I just stammered. That’s the best I’ll ever do, I mean, if I live.”

O’Neill himself does not stammer here, if his characters occasionally do. Journey is not Iceman, where the bluntness of the argument (and the bibulousness of its speakers) militates against poetic expression. The participants here are at once more intimate and more estranged, and the dialogue reflects the intelligence of the Tyrones as well as the parameters of their various educations. Mary, the mother, has only her convent schooling; father James, a once-celebrated actor, has at least absorbed the texts of his beloved Shakespeare; the sons, Jamie and Edmund, have their Harvard experience and the realist/romantic verses of the poets Jamie once held dear, whom Edmund still does and of whom his older brother now despairs. While the lines they speak are too prosaic in themselves to soar as O’Neill may have wished, the total effect of them is of a great epic poem of aching melancholy, its author (again in Jamie’s words) mastering a “faithful realism, at least.” And as he goes on, “Stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people.” O’Neill here is their greatest, non-stammering stammerer.

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Although I have seen the 1962 movie adaptation four or five times since my early 20s and never, alas, the play itself, I have never been as moved by it as I was while watching it again last night. Anyone, of any age past, say early adolescence, can grasp Long Day’s Journey into Night at least in part, just as a person of 14 or 15 might enjoy Waiting for Godot for its wit or even possibly for a certain nihilistic cynicism; there is, after all, no one as romantic, or as cynical, as a teenager. But you have, I think, to have lived long enough, and been broken enough times on the rack, to feel the full and anguished weight of the thing.

What the film’s producer, Ely Laundau (later the founder of the American Film Theatre) and its director, Sidney Lumet, accomplished goes far beyond merely transmogrifying a great play to the more immediately realistic strata of the movies. While there was some, slight, editing of the text about which the purist might reasonably quibble, I don’t see how anyone could argue against the cast, a quartet of exceedingly rare sublimity. Seldom has a movie, let alone a play, been so suffused with crystalline greatness in its principals.

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A physically ravished (and emotionally ravishing) Hepburn, with Dean Stockwell as Edmund.

Katharine Hepburn was somewhat in flux in the early 1960s. She’d reached that dangerous age, Over Forty, at which not even the greatest of her contemporaries, Bette Davis, hoped for much. She’d been doing a lot of Shakespeare on stage, and not many movies, and the astonishing beauty she had conveyed from the early ’30s was, inevitably, waning. With what gratitude must she have ripped into Mary Tyrone! There is no vanity in her performance, no special pleading other than Mary’s own. Indeed, there are moments when Lumet and his extraordinary cinematographer, Boris Kaufman, make her look (and in close-ups!) positively, and shockingly, ugly. That’s a calculated move, I suspect; Mary repeatedly bemoans how haggard she’s become with age, and we may sit back in disbelief thinking, “But she’s exquisite!” Those shots, then, have the power of a shock-cut. More, the overwhelming blow of truth: No woman of 55, not even Katharine Hepburn, can fully escape the ravishes of time. Moreover, since it is Mary’s quarter-century of morphine addiction that is the corroded heart of the matter in the play, some physical deterioration simply has to be accommodated.

Hepburn’s rightness is not merely one of physiognomy. If you’ll forgive another musical metaphor, Hepburn plays Mary like a cello: Adagio at the start, agitato creeping in; breaking the surface with shattering rubato, then temporizing, modulating, rallentando; a space of religioso here, a smattering of maestoso there; a burst of presto followed by an uncanny largo —  and always, always, non troppo. She does not tip her hand. It is only gradually that Hepburn reveals the extent of Mary’s addiction, and its hold on her moods. (Her deep love for, and concern about, Edmund is plain, but simmers with resentment, as it was his difficult birth that put her on the path toward the hop.) While agitated, especially when dancing around the topic of Edmund’s possible tuberculosis, Hepburn hints at the volcano, seemingly dormant, but pulls back before it can activate. When she finally explodes, as she must, the effect is shattering, as when, at luncheon, in the midst of a bitter denunciation of the quacks who led her down the vertiginous track to dope-fiendom, she suddenly hurls crockery to the floor with both hands on the line, “I hate doctors!” In a long career of great performances, I don’t think she ever did finer work than she does here.

The magnificent Ralph Richardson, as James.

The magnificent Ralph Richardson, as James.

The same is true of Ralph Richardson’s James Tyrone. For an heroic actor with a voice whose distinction was only slightly less than that of his great coeval, John Gielgud’s, Richardson was cursed with a face whose plainness was his gravest disappointment. And while he made far too few movies, those in which he stars benefit immeasurably from his presence. As fine an entertainment as Carol Reed and Grahame Green’s The Fallen Idol (1948), for example, would be infinitely less without him — perhaps even unthinkable. His James Tyrone is, as it were, the worm’s-eye view of the man; yet for all his pettiness of spirit, mean constriction of mind and (explicable if not salutary) miserliness, we sense as well the dignity of James, his buried kindness, and the potential greatness of the actor whom Edwin Booth once praised and who, but for the wickedly gleaming lure of a sure-fire financial success (never named but surely the same Count of Monte Cristo whose massive receipts made James O’Neill even as it imprisoned him) might have rivaled, or even surpassed, his mentor in artistry. Richardson is magnificent.

Dean Stockwell as Edmund and Jason Robards, Jr. as Jamie, with Richardson.

Dean Stockwell as Edmund and Jason Robards, Jr. as Jamie, with Richardson.

Jason Robards, Jr. was Jamie in the 1956 American premiere, and reprises his defining performance here, hard on the heels of his resplendent Hickey in the Lumet-directed NET production of Iceman. (He would later portray the somewhat older, even more dissipated Jamie in the 1973 A Moon for the Misbegotten revival.) Whether or not Robards’ interpretation of the role had deepened or changed in the six years between productions I leave to those who saw both. On the screen, however, he is electrifying. Trite encomium, but none else will do. For Robards, like Hepburn (and indeed their co-stars) builds slowly, although Jamie’s disgust — at himself as much as his familial relations — is present from the beginning; it needs only the long-delayed lubrication of an epic alcoholic tear to liberate itself fully. Jamie is not being disingenuous when he proclaims, in the explosive fourth act, his endearing love for Edmund, and his barely concealed hatred and jealousy. That both emotions reside in the same, despairing and disparaged, heart makes Jamie among the most fully-developed characters in modern drama, and Robards anatomizes these ever-warring, obsessive, sentiments with the skill of a surgeon and the agonized passion of only the greatest actors. He is equally effective in open misery as he is in bitter cynicism; when Mary makes her final descent (in both senses of that word) Jamie’s caustic, “The Mad Scene. Enter Ophelia!” is at once appalling and utterly comprehensible. He deserves both the slap he receives from Edmund and the reward for honest endurance of the insupportable which, for him, will never be forthcoming..

Mama's baby, Papa's pet: Dean Stockwell with Hepburn.

Mama’s baby, Papa’s pet: Dean Stockwell with Hepburn.

Dean Stockwell is, among the four, the most tragic figure. I mean by this not his role as O’Neill’s stand-in but the stunning way in which, after this exceptional performance, his film career all but dried up, and that on the heels not only of Edmund but of well-regarded work in Sons and Lovers (1960) and both the stage and screen versions of Meyer Levin’s Leopold and Loeb play Compulsion. (In the latter, incidentally, he appeared with another highly gifted young actor whose mature years were largely unremarkable, Bradford Dillman. In an interesting coincidence, Dillman was Edmund in the March-Eldridge Long Day’s Journey, and would later make a superb Willie Oban in the 1973 American Film Theatre version of The Iceman Cometh.) Unique among former child actors, Stockwell blossomed in his 20s; by contrast, it would take the splendid Roddy McDowall, six years Dean’s senior, far longer to be taken seriously… although McDowall’s later career would prove far rosier than Stockwell’s.

The young actor is just about everything one could wish of an Edmund Tyrone. His diminutive stature, as well as his good looks, which teeter on the brink of prettiness, make it instantly clear why he is doted upon, and protected, by the family. “Mama’s baby, Papa’s pet,” Jamie sneers at him, just as Mary more than once reminds Edmund that he is a baby, and wants to be petted and fussed over. What neither his mother nor his brother quite grasps but which the seemingly oblivious elder James does, is that Edmund is far from infantile. At 24 he is already a veteran of wanderlust, an avid sailor whose fondest memories are of being lost to himself on the sea, and a would-be suicide (in a flophouse that would serve as the model for Harry Hope’s saloon in The Iceman Cometh and in which the more mature O’Neill will locate a mother-hating young man who will complete the act his real-life counterpart could not.) Himself only slightly older than Edmund in the play, Stockwell exhibits an astonishing, heartbreaking hold on the character. He is at once boyish and wise (or, as he and Jamie would have it, “wised-up”), striver and defeatist, a man-child for whom the future holds both infinite possibility and a crushing weight of guilt and resentment for which this, his magnum opus, will be only partial expiation. It’s all there in Stockwell’s precocious performance. See this, and weep for the artistic promise that was, inexplicably, never fulfilled.

Frankenstein and his monster: Stockwell and Robards.

Frankenstein and his monster: Stockwell and Robards.

 

 

 

 

 

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The fog people at the hopeless close of night.

The movie of Long’s Day’s Journey into Night was not a success at the box-office (total receipts: $500,000) but the entire cast deservedly received the Best Actor and Best Actress Awards that year at Cannes, and Hepburn was further nominated for an Academy Award®, although they all ought to have been. The film was cut after its release from 174 minutes to 134, and even now its “restored” version only runs 170. At least in the current edition there is some mention of the brother the older Jamie may or may not have deliberately infected, who died in infancy and the mention of whose name hits one with the force of a thunderclap: Dear God, what could O’Neill have meant by naming that baby Eugene! That, as with the nihilists Heine and Nietzsche, he is saying the best of all fates is never to have been born? That the playwright wished, on some level, it had been himself who was spared the burden of life, and of relation to this family?

Throughout, Lumet directs with the acute sensitivity that would make him one of our finest, and most humane, filmmakers. He does not obtrude. He observes, with heart and mind wide open, the vengeful perambulations of the Tyrones, never editorializing yet also never missing a beat either of their love for each other or their perfectly aimed barbs of psychic murderousness. Kaufman’s photography is luminous, both shadowed and acute, and reaches a kind of breathtaking apogee in Mary’s final, morphine dream monologue wherein the camera pulls further and further back as darkness envelopes (to quote once again from O’Neill’s dedication) “all the four haunted Tyrones.” There is nothing, at this point, that James, Jamie or Edmund can do but either ignore her, or watch, helplessly, as she moves father away from them. The fog has swallowed them all. Yet, shockingly, just at the height (or depth) of Mary’s opiate-induced transcendence, Lumet and Kaufman return to a sudden close-up Hepburn’s face as the dream-state begins to end and reality comes roaring back. The unexpected edit brings us all — the Tyrones, and those who watch them, as fascinated as children gazing at the frenzied beats of a butterfly impaled on a board — back to the soul-crushing truth of lives hopelessly burdened by a past they can neither change nor forget, for the play’s final, devastating lines: “Then in the spring something happened to me. Yes, I remember. I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.”

How perfect the choice of those last three words! Fond memory succeeded, hard on, by a dying fall, like the emotional obverse of Tennessee Williams’ “Sometimes — there’s God — so quickly!” Obliterating light, and hope, and the promise of a dawn that, swallowed up in indifferent fog (neither annealing nor malign but merely obliterative) will now never come. O’Neill may not have become the lyric poet of his aspirations, but he found a more instinctive, naïve, native poetry in the everyday. And although the ending of this, his supreme effort, is unutterably, ineffably sad, yet it is also, like the play itself, cause for celebration. Muted, perhaps, and acclaimed by a voice made ragged with weeping, but the hard-won cheer is the most cherished of all, and the most deeply felt.

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They should ALL have been nominated, at the very least. (And won, as they did at Cannes.)

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

End of the Line Cafés: “The Iceman Cometh” (1960/1973)

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The 1960 television “The Iceman Cometh” as seen by Al Hirschfeld. Left to right: Hilda Brawner, Myron McCormick, Jason Robards and Julie Bovasso.

By Scott Ross

If, as I believe, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night is the great American play, his The Iceman Cometh vies with very few fellow contenders for a most respectable second place. And if family is the great subject of 20th century American dramatists, there is no family play that can touch Long Day’s Journey in its merciless yet pitying dissection of the means by which our immediate relations shape, and misshape, us, and the unshakable, death-grip hold they exert on us: How, even when we comprehend, and confront, the psychic murders parents and children visit on one another, we are unable to fully forgive, let alone, forget, them.

James Barton, holding forth at center, the original Hickey of O'Neill's 1946 staging. That linear row of tables couldn't have helped.

James Barton, holding forth at center, the original Hickey of O’Neill’s 1946 staging. That linear row of tables couldn’t have helped.

While the nuclear unit is not the dramatic center of The Iceman Cometh, family is never very far from the surface. The denizens of Harry Hope’s saloon themselves form an uneasy, shifting, kind of family, made up largely of disaffected brothers and eccentric uncles, with Harry himself the predictably mercurial pater familias. And for many of these men, some sort of familial uncoupling forms the basis of dipsomania. Larry Slade, the “old foolosopher,” a one-time Anarchist, claims he’s long finished with the movement, yet it was his ultimately untenable involvement with young Don Parritt’s mother that soured him on his youthful pipe-dream of political upheaval. Parritt himself, who looks to Larry as a potential father-figure, has betrayed the movement to the police for a mess of pottage, ostensibly for money but really to get back at his indifferent mom, that self-same paragon of the movement who so effectively killed Larry’s activism. Likewise, the one-time “brilliant law student” Willie was undone by the arrest and imprisonment of his bucket-shop proprietor father, and Jimmy Tomorrow pretends the cause of his bibulousness was his wife’s infidelity when it is far more likely that the reverse was true. Even “The General” and “The Captain,” old Boer War antagonists now inseparable companions in methomania, have been disowned by their families at home, while Harry deludes himself that he has withdrawn from life outside by his great love for his (conveniently) dead wife Bessie, a nagging termagant. And Hickey, whose arrival is so widely anticipated — and whose sudden reversal of persona is just as avidly despaired of — has finally reached the limit of his capacity to torture, and be tormented by, his endlessly forgiving wife Evelyn.

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O’Neill at the time of the first, ill-fated, production of “The Iceman Cometh” on Broadway.

O’Neill generally (and Iceman most specifically) can feel like strong medicine, even to his admirers. For Arthur Miller, himself no slouch in the practice of heavy-handedness, O’Neill “is a very insensitive writer. There’s no finesse at all: he’s the Dreiser of the stage. He writes with heavy pencils.” Pauline Kael classified Iceman as “the greatest thesis play in the American theatre.” And Kenneth Tynan was absolutely correct when he noted of it, “Paul Valery once defined a true snob as a man who was afraid to admit that he was bored when he was bored; and he would be a king of snobs indeed who failed to admit to a mauvais quart d’heure about halfway through The Iceman Cometh.”

I myself avoided both reading and seeing Iceman for decades, for precisely the reasons explicated above. Well, that and its 4-hour length, which cowed me. But no one who considers himself a playwright, or a critic, has any business avoiding O’Neill, or this play, indefinitely. Despite its obviousness, its insensitivity, its longueurs, its lack of poetry and its undeniable position as a thesis play, The Iceman Cometh is, somehow, indispensable. It says little, and at great length and volubility, and one can argue endlessly about whether O’Neill is averring that human beings need their pipe-dreams in order to live (Kael) or that the specificity of a barroom/flophouse filled with alcoholic bums invalidates its universality (Tynan.) I would say that O’Neill is not necessarily claiming anything for everyone but that, if he was, it is that pipe-dreams are less what allow us to face the impossibilities of life as they are the inevitable run-off of personal guilt and the fantasies permitting those who feel themselves failures to believe in some sort of hope, however tenuous or unattainable, for the future.

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Robards as Hickey.

O’Neill himself staged the 1946 Iceman, in a production starring James Barton that was roundly unappreciated and puzzled over, and which ran only briefly; it took 10 years for the play to be rediscovered, in the popular Circle Rep re-staging by Jose Quintero. And while there is as yet no “definitive,” complete video rendering of this unwieldy, occasionally stupefying but undeniably powerful dramatic cantata, two exceptional, if slightly abridged, editions were, thankfully, preserved for posterity. The first, Sidney Lumet’s 1960 video production, produced by the nascent public broadcasting entity National Educational Television (NET) would be notable if only for its capturing of Jason Robards’ universally acclaimed characterization of Hickey but is, despite its visual limitations, much more than merely a showcase for a great actor’s defining performance. The second, John Frankenheimer’s 1973 movie for the short-lived subscription series American Film Theatre, may lack Robards but its visual palette is far richer and it gives us as well, in a uniformly superb cast, the final performances of two great American actors.

The great Robert Ryan as Larry (1973.)

The great Robert Ryan as Larry (1973.)

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Myron McCormick as Larry (1960.)

Since the play is at base a contest between Larry and Hickey, the casting of the two roles is crucial. About Hickey, more anon. But in its Larry, the AFT production has the decided edge in Robert Ryan. Then 59 — and, although he did not know it during the filming, dying — this greatest of unheralded American actors gives the performance of a lifetime. The movie camera helps, of course, but what is written on Ryan’s craggy, lived-in face is unique to him. As a lifelong leftist, the role of a former anarchist drowning in his bitterness must have held great appeal, but Ryan also brought to the movie the experience of his previous role as James Tyrone opposite Geraldine Fitzgerald in a Long Day’s Journey revival, so his O’Neill bona fides are secure. He lends a gentleness, and a grace, to Larry that is absent in Myron McCormick’s effective but more obvious 1960 reading; in Ryan, the warring impulses of instinctive pity and a desperate desire to an indifference he cannot feel are as absolute, and as heartrending, as his conflicting hope for, and fear of, “the big sleep” of death.

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The magnificent Frederic March as Harry, with Ryan and Tom Pedi, the once and future Rocky.

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Robards with Farrell Pelly as Harry Hope.

Crucial too to the 1973 edition too is the Harry Hope of Frederic March. One of the most important actors of his time, March was a popular matinee idol (A Star is Born), twice an Academy Award® winner (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Best Years of Our Lives) and, latterly, the creator of James Tyrone in the 1956 premiere, following O’Neill’s death, of Long Day’s Journey. At 76, March plays the 60 year-old Harry with rare gusto, his malleable face stretching from the slackness of both bottomless self-pity and irritable garrulity to the infectious grin of devilish (and innately sadistic) merriment that make it instantly clear why, aside from his largesse with liquor, the denizens of what Larry calls “The Bottom of the Sea Rathskeller” adore him and put up with his periodic grousing. I don’t mean to slight Ferrell Pelly, who played the role in 1956 and again in 1960. If March’s performance did not exist, Pelly’s would seem sublime. But March’s does.

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The Parritts of the Lumet and the Frankenheimer are, by contrast, a virtual draw. The 1960 Parritt, Robert Redford, is so staggeringly good you can only lament how seldom, once he became a star, he has been given — or allowed himself to take — a role that gave him so much latitude. It isn’t that the self-hating young man is a great role, or even a terribly good one. It’s more a device, and an occasionally irritating one, but that merely makes Redford’s achievement all the more remarkable. There’s nothing guarded here, as there so often is with Redford’s later appearances; the moods are sudden and startling, the outbursts at once annoying and deeply moving. I think it’s the best thing he’s ever done.

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Jeff Bridges had been giving fine performances for some time before the 1973 Iceman, so his appearance here may have seemed less spectacular than Redford’s at the time. And, as with Ryan, he’s helped by the Eastmancolor camera; there are moments when you watch, filled with wonder at the beauty of his open young face. For all the schematicism of the role, Bridges brings to it the heartbreaking ardor, confusion, guilt and cruelty of youth, and more. The sound he makes when he feels Larry has given him permission to enact the very escape his hoped-for father substitute cannot undertake for himself — something between a sobbing whimper of relief and a sigh very close to the post-orgasmic — is unforgettable.

Moses Gunn as Joe Mott

Moses Gunn as Joe Mott

Bradford Dillman, right, as a heartbreakingly believable Willie Oban.

Bradford Dillman, right, as a heartbreakingly believable Willie Oban.

In the smaller roles, most of the 1960 cast are the equal of those in 1973. Two exceptions are the Willie of Bradford Dillman and the Joe Mott of Moses Gunn. James Broderick’s 1960 Willie is very fine, but Dillman’s is revelatory. We’d seen him in a profusion of thankless, largely forgettable, movie and television roles for years in the ’60s and ’70s, and he’d always seemed one of those actors, not beautiful enough to star, always reliable in support, who never quite get the chance to grasp the brass ring. Drunk, Dillman’s Willie simmers in self-disgust, and his delirium tremens is so terrifyingly right that he becomes a genuinely tragic figure, too young to be so lost, yet too long in the sauce ever to amount to anything. Moses Gunn, one of our best, and least well known, character actors, looks both like a sport and a hopeless drunk, and the way he bestirs himself to righteous anger at the others, and at himself, for their genial racism and his own complicity in it, are searing. In 1960, Maxwell Glanville was rather too robust physically to quite get the wreck Joe has become. And while his characterization is, like Broderick’s Willie, a good accounting, Gunn’s is non-pariel.

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Tom Pedi, second from left, as Rocky. To his right is Sorrell Booke. At far right, John McLiam, the movie’s heartbreaking Jimmy Tomorrow.

Lee Marvin's Hickey sizes on Jimmy Tomorrow and Harry Hope.

Lee Marvin’s Hickey seizes on Willie Oban and Harry Hope.

Tom Pedi had the distinction of playing Rocky, the saloon’s weather-vane of a bartender who deludes himself that being a procurer does not make him a pimp, in 1946, 1960 and 1973, and is both the same, and different, in the television edition and the AFT movie. The same, in that his characterization is roughly identical in each, yet different if only for having aged into it. He’s at once keenly perceptive and eye-rollingly capricious, first cozying up to then deflating the bums in Harry’s bar with the breathtaking suddenness of a born sadist. (Like owner, like barkeep…) He’s also more than slightly terrifying. Sorrell Booke, too, is in both the Lumet and the Frankeheimer. As Hugo, perpetually sozzled, waking from his stupors just long enough to express his true loathing of the proletariat he believes he loves, Booke is both comic and (to use a word that, in context, sounds like a pun but isn’t) sobering. The Jimmy Tomorrows of 1960 and 1973 also constitute a near-draw, with the knife-edge going to latter. Harrison Dowd’s Jimmy, while eschewing any sort of noticeable accent, is moving enough. But John McLiam, whose voice carries more than “the ghost of a Scotch rhythm,” has sad, limpid eyes, helped along by the color camera, and his tremulousness is no less heartbreaking than are his occasional, doomed stabs at a regained dignity.

The women are more problematic. Not the actresses themselves (Hilda Brawner, Julie Bovasso and Joan Copeland in ’60 and Hildy Brooks, Juno Dawson and the preposterously named Evans Evans in ’73) but the characters. Billy Wilder once allegedly — and notoriously — said of the women in his movies, “If she isn’t a whore, she’s a bore.” Well, the whores in Iceman are all bores, devices through which O’Neill gets at his theses. The women in both casts do what they can, and Evans (married at the time to the director) rises above the material occasionally. But only barely.

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Lee Marvin as Hickey.

Which brings us, finally, to Hickey, and the great divergence. I wonder whether Lee Marvin’s performance might have been granted more honor in 1973 had Robards’ not been broadcast thirteen years earlier. (Although Kael, who discerned too much shouting in Marvin’s long, climactic aria, may have been relying on a faulty memory; Robards also bellows.) For my part, both actors are equally fine, if in different ways. Robards may be more jocular, raising that patented sheepish chuckle of his after revealing more than he means to, and the fact that the vocal gesture is one he used in other, later roles, does not diminish its effectiveness. Marvin’s persona was never that of the glad-hander, and there is a certain tightness behind his initial bon homie that hints at the coldness with which Hickey operates; he’s spent a lifetime sizing up his marks, calculating the unstated yearnings of those he’s selling before moving in for the kill. (Not that anyone with a halfway decent mind would have much trouble figuring out this bunch.) To grouse about Marvin not being Robards is to deprive oneself the pleasure of watching an actor stretch himself, and in a role whose richness he must have known would likely never come his way again.

Sidney Lumet in the mid-1950s.

Sidney Lumet in the mid-1950s.

Lee Marvin (Hickey) with John Frankeheimer on set.

Lee Marvin (Hickey) with John Frankeheimer on set.

As directors, both Lumet and Frankenheimer serve O’Neill, and their actors, never getting in the way of either. Both editions cut the text a bit, and the ATF Iceman omits the (admittedly minor) character of Ed Mosher, Harry Hope’s circus con-man brother-in-law, perhaps because of budget — the series producer, Ely Landau, of necessity restricted her filmmakers to one million dollars — but more likely because it was felt that one parasitic hanger-on (the corrupt former cop Pat McGloin) in Harry’s apartment was sufficient. The NET production, aired over two evenings, appears to have been live; lines are flubbed slightly now and then, and the actors begin to perspire noticeably around the mid-point of each segment. If so, it makes what Robards & Co. accomplish that much more impressive. That Lumet was trained in live television, and a past master at it, in no way dulls the luster of his achievement.

The major differences between the two versions is one less of scale than of opportunity. (Although the television edition is more like a filmed stage-play, owing as much to the space in which it takes place as to anything else.) Lumet, working within the severe limitations of early video, is unable to get a visual balance, or to light his actors suggestively. The starkness of the image washes out contrast, and what I assume must have been very hot lights presumably negated any possibility for subtly or nuance in the visuals. Frankenheimer, working with the color cinematographer Ralph Woolsey —  and film — and able to avail himself of Raphael Bretton’s realistically solid and beautifully tatty sets, had greater opportunity to make his Iceman Cometh much more cinematic, although he is never showy. The textures of the settings, rich and shadowed and lived-in, and the ability to use far more technically advanced, and supple, film stock than the flat black-and-white video available to Lumet, allowed Frankenheimer a looser, more realistic palette. It’s notable that the two, although radically different, got their start as directors during the era of live television drama, and had, perhaps as a result, deep respect for actors and text, both crucial here. In their respective versions of this essential American drama, each man came through with honor bright. And honor, as Aristotle suggested (and as I suspect Eugene O’Neill would have agreed) is the second greatest quality of the mind, eclipsed only by courage. All three men, to one degree or another, certainly had that.

*Today, when a Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist and professor of playwriting such as Suzan-Lori Parks only “discovers” Shakespeare well into her career, Thespis alone knows who the influences are. Television shows?

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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Janus or Pluto?: (Some more) theatre on video and film

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By Scott Ross

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When I first heard that Mel Brooks’ wildly uneven but utterly original 1968 comedy The Producers was being developed as a stage musical, my heart sank. Another adaptation of a movie? This was only in 2000, remember, long before the mad rush to plaster the entirety of Broadway with pre-sold movie titles and “jukebox” shows, yet the trend had already planted its pernicious roots, due largely to the flowering of Michael Eisner’s beloved “synergy”: Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King. It now routinely requires two dozen named producers to mount the average musical in New York; a movie company can spend and spend (and spend — Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, anyone?) in the theatre, and its investment will still be, comparatively, minimal, even relatively painless.

My apprehension for this particular show was largely alleviated when I discovered that Brooks himself was writing the score, and co-authoring the book. Since Brooks has written delicious songs for most of his movies (including of course that subversive ear-worm “Springtime for Hitler”* for the original Producers) even his not being a trained musician/composer did not concern me unduly. After all, neither was Irving Berlin, and he did well enough. But a nagging thought persisted: What in the world could they do with L.S.D.? The character, a brain-addled hippie whose spaced-out inanity garners him the starring role in that self-same Broadway musical Springtime for Hitler, had dated almost immediately, and badly. When I finally saw The Producers, around 1976, after practically memorizing the dialogue on the original soundtrack LP, it was immediately apparent that L(orenzo) S(t.) D(uBois) was one of those topical jokes that doesn’t travel; he was already embarrassingly recherché fewer than 10 years after the movie’s release. Thirty years on he’d be well night insupportable.

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I needn’t have worried. Not only did Brooks and his co-writer, Thomas Meehan, dispense with L.S.D., they hit upon the happy notion of setting the show, not in the 1968 of the picture, but in the infinitely more tuneful, fiscally healthy Broadway environs of 1959. The choice of that year does not seem incidental. It was, after all, the apex of big shows with big scores: Flower Drum Song, Elaine Stritch in the Leroy Anderson-scored Goldilocks, Frank Evans and Jay Livingstone’s witty and underrated Oh, Captain!, The Sound of Music.  Not to mention such hold-overs as Harold Rome’s Destry Rides Again, the Bock-Harnick Fiorello!, Mary Rodgers and Marshall Barer’s Once Upon a Mattress, Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella and, of course, the record-shattering My Fair Lady of three years prior; memories were fresh, too, of Judy Garland’s most recent stage concert, which is not as incidental to The Producers as it may at first appear. As well, ’59 saw the original production of that most perfect of all musical plays, another “musical fable” the alternate brassiness and tendress of whose score (and star) were surely beacons to Brooks: The irreducible, incandescent Merman-starring Gypsy. What an atmosphere for this show’s putative hero, the impoverished yet indefatigable Max Bialystock, not merely to exist, but to thrive! That this incomparable Max was to be portrayed by the equally inimitable Nathan Lane was further indication that something potentially wonderful might be happening.

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I’d read and heard nothing of the advance buzz The Producers was generating when I picked up the newly recorded cast album. Merely glancing at the photos tickled me; hearing the score itself sent me into ecstasies. I am fully persuaded that with The Producers, Mel Brooks, already a nearly lifelong hero to me for his almost incredibly nimble brain and indomitable joie de vivre, had written the wittiest — and funniest, which is not always or necessarily the same thing — most tuneful, most intractably memorable original score in years: The finest work by a gifted amateur composer since the heyday of Frank Loesser. The greatest 1959 Broadway musical never produced.

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If I had reservations, they were only about Matthew Broderick. I was flummoxed by his ascendancy to the ranks of musical leading men, and remain utterly underwhelmed by his curiously thin and undeveloped vocalizations. Worse, the character of Leo Bloom had yielded, in Gene Wilder’s simultaneously uniquely hilarious and (to employ a seeming oxymoron) magisterially vulnerable performance, one of the greatest of all comic archetypes. Broderick, as it turned out, sang decently, and even managed some pathos. But where he is merely an acceptable pipsqueak, Wilder, on film, was inspired. Original. Sui generisNon-pariel. So much so that in his acceptance speech on winning the Academy Award® for Best Original Screenplay, Brook thanked three people: “Gene Wilder, Gene Wilder, and Gene Wilder.”

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I missed the inevitable 2005 movie of the show, directed by its original director-choreographer, Susan Strohman, which came and went all too quickly, only catching up with it a few days ago on DVD. Leonard Maltin, in his Movie Guide, suggests that this particular well has been visited once too often. I respectfully demur. While some of the movie lies in the realm of dutifully filmed theatre, much of it is splendid, and delightfully cinematic. Aspects of the show Brooks could only dream of getting onto the stage (such as Leo’s RKO fantasy of becoming a successful producer and, later, his Astaire and Rogers-inspired dance with the innocently lubricious Ula) reach heights of superbly staged, lit and photographed movie-musical bliss. And while we are, alas, denied the opportunity to relish Cady Huffman and Brad Oscar’s performances as, respectively, Ula and Springtime for Hitler’s Nazi author Franz Liebkind their replacements, Uma Thurman and Will Ferrell, do well enough, although the latter lacks the unsettling genius of the 1968 original, Kenneth Mars. (One can easily imagine the increasingly panicked casting edicts being handed down from nervous studio suits: “All right, all right! We’ll give you Lane, and Gary Beach, and Roger Bart. But you’ve gotta let us sign a couple ’a movie stars!”)

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The loss of Beach and Bart would have been, if not disastrous, at least dispiriting. Indeed, they seem to me absolutely essential to the success of the entire enterprise, nearly obliterating the original 1968 performances by Christopher Hewett (the original Karpathy of My Fair Lady) and Andreas Voutsinas (who seemed to me less amusing than unpleasantly sinister.) It is in these two riotously, and magnificently queeny, performances that the great difference between The Producers of 1968 and The Producers of 2001 is most keenly writ. What in the original had seemed unduly vicious and almost militantly homophobic becomes, in the later edition, part of Brooks’ more expansive, even loving, embrace of all things theatrical. His 2001 theatre-fags are deliriously, unabashedly, queer, in the sense not merely of being homosexual but of embracing their sexuality instead of simply embodying a narrow, even hateful, conception of it. Yes, Beach’s character (the exquisitely monickered Roger DeBries) is a pretentious, arty, clueless parvenu and yes, Bart’s languidly over-sibilant Carmen Ghia (another inspired name) is the tired businessman’s conception of the prissy, fawning, dirty-minded little hairdresser. But what in ’68 had been merely mean-spirited had mutated, by the turn of the century, into relaxed, and amused, benevolence. Brooks clearly loves these two swanning loons, and their big production number, the hilariously anachronistic “Keep it Gay” does not so much mock as celebrate the pair’s courageous outrage. It’s the difference between laughing at, and laughing with. The Brooks of 1968 is nervously disdainful. The Brooks of 2001 is having a gay (but straight!) old time of it.

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The Producers would almost be justified if all it did was record for posterity Lane’s phenomenal inventiveness and inspired clowning. Eschewing any imitation of Zero Mostel’s performance, this Bialystock is just as original and, in its way, memorable. And, thanks to the DVD, we’re allowed to enjoy the performer’s mastery of Brooks’ berserk mazurka and crazily over-rhymed couplets in the axed opening number, “The King of Old Broadway.” One can see why it was cut from the picture; Max’s character, and his impecunious state, are established in his first scene with Leo; unless the number had somehow been placed in that scene, the inspired dialogue between the pair becomes almost superfluous. But what a pleasure to find it, if not restored to its rightful spot, at least preserved for those who may cherish it. (Another extra on the disc is the full “Along Came Bialy” in which Lane parades through Central Park like a demented Harold Hill leading not a brass band but a platoon of little old ladies cavorting with their Zimmerman frames. Brooks used a similar gag in his underrated 1976 Silent Movie, but it works even better here.) If Broderick is less felicitous, even he has grown on me, a little, and his innate sweetness shines through, especially in the show’s surprisingly plangent (if Platonic) love duet, “‘Til Him.”†


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I next traveled from inspired amateur to prodigious — possibly even profligately — gifted master: From The Producers to the live 1989 Barbicon Centre concert version of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. A storied flop in its day, its Goddard Lieberson-produced cast recording kept the astonishingly fecund score for Bernstein’s adaptation of Voltaire’s wry satire alive for years and led, eventually, to the vivid 1974 Hal Prince edition that finally established Candide as a genuine American masterwork. Blame for its 1956 failure vary: Lillian Hellman’s book was too studied, arch and didactic, less Voltaire than Bertolt Brecht; Tyrone Guthrie’s staging was too lush yet scatter-shot; the score was too overstuffed and “difficult” for the average Broadwayite’s ear. And while it is true that, in the revival, Hugh Wheeler’s revised book came closer to a sense of the dry outrage of the original, a sort of black comedy avant le lettre, what was undeniable is that it was Bernstein himself who is the true author of the piece. (And that despite the lyrical contributions, in 1956, of John LaTouche, Richard Wilbur, Dorothy Parker and both Hellman and Lenny himself, and, in ’74, of Stephen Sondheim.)

While there will probably never be a Candide to suit the taste of every fan — there are, after all, multiple versions of numbers like “The Best of All Possible Wolds” and “What a Day for an Auto-da-fé!” and the purist will doubtless complain that this latter, “official” version is the poorer for its dropping Sondheim’s “Sheep Song” lyric — the ’89 edition (subsequently released on a double CD set following Bernstein’s untimely death in 1990) is nearly all any aficionado could want, and performed by a cast as treasurable (with one rather notable exception) as may be imagined. The (sadly, late) Jerry Hadley is an appropriately wide-eyed Candide, his warm, rich tenor caressing every plangent note; the deeply-missed Adolph Green makes a superbly ironic Pangloss, cleverly triumphing even over his own vocal limitations; Nicolai Gedda makes delectable feasts of his varied roles; Kurt Ollmann is all one could wish in a Maximilian; and Christa Ludwig is the Old Lady of one’s fondest dreams. Only June Anderson’s Cunegonde disappoints. Felled, as so many in this concert were by what was termed “the royal flu,” Anderson is obviously struggling, and one sympathizes. But her diction, in common with far too many of her operatic contemporaries (Erie Mills and Harolyn Blackwell, both of whom have sung the role, are prime examples) is mush-mouthed. She elides over consonants carelessly, and it’s instructive to compare Ludwig’s performance with hers: Despite her Teutonic ethnicity, Ludwig’s every English word is crystal-clear and comprehensible, without resort to ostentatious over-enunciation.

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As befits an evening celebrating his most impressive (and in some ways, personal) musical-theatrical work, and not discounting the contributions of others, the concert is really All Bernstein. Although his forays to Broadway were few, in five major attempts he gave us four great shows, and in only a dozen years: On the Town, Wonderful Town, West Side Story and Candide. Other than Sondheim I can think of no other composer of Bernstein’s comparable gifts, not even Gershwin, who authored so many masterworks for the musical stage, and in so brief a time. And while Bernstein’s Candide is both a satire and a knowing opéra bouffe, two genres that would seem to cancel each other out, in his hands they not only mesh but meld. Surely the wittiest of all Broadway scores — a wit that is reflected as well in its uniquely literate lyrics — yet Candide manages to be moving, profoundly so, especially in its glowing finale, the sublime “Make Our Garden Grow.”

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This Candide is unique, too, in that it bests every one of those other opera-and-Broadway hybrids of its time (a genre begun by Bernstein’s own, ill-conceived 1984 West Side Story recording.) But then, aside from those of Pangloss and Martin (which Green also assays here) this is a show whose every role requires not merely a good singer, but a great one. I’ve often wondered how Barbara Cook, the original Cunegonde, felt when Lenny handed her the sheet music for “Glitter and Be Gay” and she realized she’d have to hit that culminating high E flat seven times a week. But, aside from its starry cast, what makes the concert so insuperably joyous is Bernstein’s conducting. Peter G. Davis once referred, more in sadness than in anger, to Bernstein’s “ponderous, ‘Late Lenny’ style.” That affectation is in no way in evidence here. This is Candide in excelsis, as buoyant and infectious, as incandescent and sparkling, as the night the show premiered. Bernstein is so relaxed, and so clearly loving every moment, that, on top of his patented “Lenny Leap,” he often levitates in place, dancing in wriggling pleasure. That delight is ours as well.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

*Brooks claims he’s even heard the song as Muzak in elevators; I don’t doubt him.

†Side-note: Is it just me, or does the actor’s carefully chiseled chest now seem weirdly over-developed? It unbalances his diminutive frame, looking less like musculature than a male bodice.