More wonder’d at: Harold Prince (1928 – 2019)

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Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at.
 — Prince Hal, 1 Henry IV (I, ii. 221)

By Scott Ross

When Harold S. Prince died in July, at 91, I have the feeling the general reaction among at least two generations who grew up with the effects of his genuinely revolutionary approach to musical theatre was a collective shrug… if they noticed at all. (He wasn’t making news just before he died, and with today’s collective 15-minute memory span, who knows?) Yet nearly everything they, and we, now take for granted, both as audience members and as creative and performing personnel, about the way musicals are staged, and about what their content is permitted to be, stems from Prince’s advances, and from those with whom he collaborated: Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, John Kander and Fred Ebb, Stephen Sondheim, Michael Bennett.

Hal Prince - Hirschfeld resized

Prince in the ’70s by Al Hirschfeld, glasses characteristically perched atop his dome.

Without Prince, the harder-edged musical play would have happened… but not nearly so soon. I say “musical play” as opposed to “musical comedy,” which encompasses everything from George M. Cohan to The Producers. The musical drama, pioneered by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern with Show Boat (1927) and to a degree perfected by Hammerstein in his shows with Richard Rodgers (Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I) was, for all its innovations, unwilling, or incapable, of addressing harsh reality, or even satire; by the time of Oscar’s death, Rodgers & Hammerstein had become the old conservatives of their own movement: Murder, yes, and miscegenation… war and racism… even Nazis (although they don’t sing and dance; we have to wait until Mel Brooks for that). But these are easy to come out against; who’s for Nazis and murderers? On the other hand, it takes real intestinal fortitude to stage near-rapes, gang violence, pogroms, 1930s Reds, brownshirts menacing Jews, American incursion into Japan, serial killers and cannibalism, Fascist rallies, stories that run backwards, Nora after the door-slam, nelly queens and systemic prison abuse, and lynching. That is where Harold S. (“Hal”) Prince comes in, and why we owe him so very much. (Re-reading that last sentence, I am irresistibly reminded of Alan Bennett’s witty bon mot in Beyond the Fringe: “I go to the theatre to be entertained. I want to be taken out of myself. I don’t want to see lust and rape, incest and sodomy — I can get all that at home.”) He also left us in debt by making musicals more cinematic, less convention-bound even in the matter of the spaces between scenes. A Prince show moved, and what he called the “boring holdovers” of blackouts (except when effective dramatically) and “in one” transition bits played before the curtain while stagehands busily moved furniture behind it slowly disappeared. Here Robbins, with West Side Story, is the most important progenitor of a new mode of transit — “through-staging,” we might call it — but Prince, as one of the show’s producers, surely approved. Why should an audience be bored by the same things that bored the people who put the show together?

It seems impossible that he could have been born with the almost jokey-prosaic last name of Smith. Fortunately, his mother re-married a certain Mr. Prince. That was more like it. (I’ve always been rather nonplussed that no one in the press, when profiling Hal Prince and his innovations, saw the Shakespearean obvious: Just reverse the names.) Prince began his theatrical career as an assistant stage manager, then a stage manager, for George Abbott, eventually becoming, with Robert E. Griffith, Abbott’s producer. The first Prince/Griffith show, The Pajama Game (1954, score by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, choreography by Fosse, co-directed by Abbott and Robbins), was a massive hit. The team followed it up with Damn Yankees (1955, also Adler and Ross, with Abbott and Fosse), New Girl in Town (1957, Bob Merrill out of Eugene O’Neill, with dances by Fosse), Fiorello! (1959, Bock and Harnick, directed by Abbott) and Tenderloin (1960, ditto) with a break from Abbott for West Side Story in 1957. When Griffith died in 1961, Prince became a solo producer with the comedy Take Her, She’s Mine (1961) and when David Merrick walked away from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962, directed by Abbott, ghosted by Robbins) Prince stepped in, largely as a favor to the show’s composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim. In 1964, he had his greatest success until the late 1980s with Fiddler on the Roof (1964, staged by Robbins), which kept his production office going through any number of bad years and disappointing shows. Prince’s last musical purely as producer (1965’s Flora, The Red Menace) strikes one now — as indeed it struck many then — as a very tame affair. Although it was peripherally concerned with ’30s labor agitation, toward which “Mr. Abbott” was predictably cool, it boasted the first Kander and Ebb score and gave Liza Minnelli her first starring role, and defining number (“It’s a Quiet Thing.”)


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She Loves Me: Barbara Cook, Gino Conforti and Daniel Massey

The second phase of Prince’s career, overlapping the first, was as a producer and director, mostly of musicals: A Family Affair (1962, music by John Kander with lyrics by the librettists, James and William Goldman), the exquisite She Loves Me (1963, once more with Bock and Harnick), It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman (1966, score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams). But it was his last show of 1966 that would mark the real turning point. Within (and without) a more or less square musicalization, not of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories so much as the pale John Van Druten play made of them, lurked a striking, even frightening, political floorshow, a fierce, grinning Brechtian commentary on the action, and the disintegrating Weimar Republic, conducted by a grotesque little Master of Ceremonies, patent-leather hair parted in the center, rouge, mascara and lipstick splitting his clown-white face at strategic angles.

This character, no part of any previous iteration of the material, is pure, impure Prince; during his military service he’d seen, in a seedy Stuttgart nightclub, a dwarf M.C. made up exactly that way. The gorilla in a tutu the Master of Ceremonies sings to was likewise part of a dream Prince had during rehearsals, and which he got Kander and Ebb to musicalize. I am the furthest thing from a subscriber to auteurism, and as a one-time playwright my sympathies are naturally more attuned to the writers than to the vaunted “directocracy” (and now, it seems, “dramaturgic community”) that wants credit for everything done in a play or musical. But what Prince wrought with Cabaret — indeed, throughout his entire career as a creative collaborator — is an example of what can happen with a visionary director has a hand in shaping theatrical material. Prince also used a galvanizing experience he had at Moscow’s Taganka Theatre, where he saw a blazingly theatrical production of a play based on John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World, and whose effects, such as using spots trained upward from the stage floor to create a curtain of light, he carried with him forever after. (That Orson Welles had done similar things in the 1930s does not diminish their impact; whatever is neglected will seem new when re-discovered.) The loose form Prince developed for Cabaret freed him to give everything a shot.

What he came to call the “Limbo” numbers of Cabaret were what the show was really about, and had its creators (which included Kander and Ebb, the book writer Joe Masteroff, and the choreographer Ron Field) played to those strengths and remained wholly true to their intentions — and to Isherwood’s homosexuality — the show would have likely run a tiny fraction of its eventual 1,165 performances but would have been a greater blow for the freedom of creative expression in the marketplace. Still, for Prince it was an impressive hurling down of a personal gauntlet. Its success gave him, and a lot of other people, permission to try.

Cabaret - Wilkommen (Joel Grey)

Cabaret: Joe Grey leads the performers of the Kit Kat Klub in “Wilkommen.” Note the titled mirror, which reflected the audience back at itself, forcing it to become a part of what it was witnessing. Jill Haworth, the show’s Sally Bowles, is at right.

His, and Kander and Ebb’s, follow-up, the almost unrelievedly dark Zorbá (1968) and told through even stronger theatrical means, ran less than a third as long as Cabaret, which tells you something. But it was with his next two musicals that Prince made his boldest statement yet. First, developing with the actor/playwright George Furth a fragmentary narrative frame for a seemingly unconnected series of marital and romantic encounters — the first of the so-called “concept” musicals — Prince and Sondheim (and Michael Bennett, who choreographed) concocted a book musical almost more like a revue: Bold, witty (although perhaps a bit more arch than was good for it), wildly theatrical, sophisticated in content, style and form, Company (1970) was unlike any musical comedy before it. And if it caused arguments (there were those who loathed it) they were as nothing to what Follies inspired.

Company - Being Alive

Company: Dean Jones as Bobby. Note the body language of those “good and crazy people,” his friends. What they are urging him toward — marriage — in this configuration looks so unsettling it’s no wonder he’s ambivalent.

Follies drew blood, and meant to. Originally intended, under the title The Girls Upstairs, by Sondheim and James Goldman as a sort of musical murder-mystery (or, as Goldman called it, a “Who’ll-Do-It?”) set against a reunion of old showgirls, the musical evolved under Prince’s tutelage into a ghost story, a metaphor for the nervous America of the Nixon era, an extravagant reverie on loss, disillusion and regret set to music — specifically, the music of America before and between the wars, in the “Follies” numbers, and, in the “book” scenes, the singular and piercingly modern voice of Sondheim. No musical before it had hit back so forcefully against what the creators thought was the lie of pop culture, and of the Popular Songbook itself: The phony optimism, sexless love and happily-ever-after dreams that sustained generations of Americans, and American songwriters, who woke up one day and realized it was all shit.

Set in an old, crumbling theatre about to be demolished (itself a potent metaphor) Follies presented past and present at once, with impossibly tall, ghostly showgirls floating through the action and its main characters appearing on stage in both their current and their former personae. Goldman’s dialogue frequently overlapped past and present, and when the four protagonist/antagonists’ feelings bubbled over, everything split apart, reality replaced with a “Follies” of the mind, in which, singly, the quartet expressed their dissatisfaction in traditional musical-comedy terms that revealed a kind of anger and bitterness no such song ever admitted to in the past.* A “You Don’t Know the Half of it Dearie, Blues,” baggy-pants routine for a philandering husband, his bored wife and overly avid lover; an aching, emotionally naked torch number, slightly reminiscent of “Black Coffee,” for a woman who for 30 years has been in love with an unattainable ideal. And long before that show-within-a-show, there were contrapuntal duets for a singer and her younger self (“One More Kiss,” one of the show’s major musical metaphors), a dance number (“Who’s That Woman?”) in which ageing flesh and uncertain limbs are juxtaposed with the bright and beautiful bodies of the past, and a  soaring love duet (“Too Many Mornings”) in which the lovers sing past each other, she seeing him even in his middle age as her perfect love, he seeing only her lovelier past self.

Follies - Too Many Mornings embrace

“Too Many Mornings”: Dorothy Collins as Sally, who can no longer tell the difference between the past and the present; Marti Rolph as Young Sally; and John McMartin as Ben, who does see it. One of the most moving, and chilling, moments in the American musical.

Young people, perhaps especially those (usually gay) with a knowledge of the history of musicals, loved the show. Older spectators, uncomfortable with what they were being shown about themselves, hated it. But Follies dared. It said, in Sondheim’s words, “that to live in the past is foolish,” and not doing so becomes harder with age. In a show this music-heavy, and which depended so strongly on songs and dances to grow its metaphors, Prince made the smart decision to share direction with Bennett. It was his most dance-heavy show, and one sometimes wishes he — and Sondheim — had trusted that more in the years to come; eschewing dance in favor of “movement” loses you a lot, even in a “serious” musical, including the goodwill of audiences, who love watching dancers in a musical.

Follies’ effect was one of Total Theatre. With Florence Klotz’s extravagant costumes, Tharon Musser’s atmospheric lighting and Boris Aronson’s deteriorating sets moving with fluidity from one space to another, and all adhering to a single idea, Follies is arguably the most perfectly integrated musical ever created. And in Dorothy Collins’ Sally it presented the American musical’s first true madwoman, her brain split apart by the unbridgeable abyss between obsessive fantasy and untenable reality; Sally’s final line (“Oh, dear God — it is tomorrow!”) was the most despairing ever written for a musical.


Send in the Clowns

“Send in the Clowns”: Glynis Johns as Desirée in A Little Night Music.

The next Prince/Sondheim was almost the antithesis of Follies, a romantic European period musical — one based on Bergman, admittedly, and with dark undertones to the froth — in which, through the composer’s strange alchemy, all of the music was in three-quarter time. Even so, A Little Night Music (1973) actually ran fewer performances than its predecessor. (Its “hit” song, “Send in the Clowns,” only became big two years after the show opened, when Sinatra and Judy Collins recorded it.) The next year, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Prince produced a re-conceived, and largely re-written, edition of Leonard Bernstein’s esteemed 1957 flop Candide. With (at her insistence) the original Lillian Hellman book jettisoned — Hugh Wheeler wrote the revision, hewing closer to Voltaire — old numbers cut, new ones created using trunk music (the lyrics were Sondheim’s), a vaudevillian structure and an environmental staging, the show was so successful it virtually demanded a Broadway transfer.

Never content to play it safe, Prince convinced young John Weidman (John’s son) to let him musicalize his un-performed play about the opening of Japan by the West and corralled Sondheim to compose for it. The result, Pacific Overtures (1972) was a glorious nonesuch, a nearly operatic meditation on American imperialist power kitted out with Kabuki conventions (including invisible stagehands, a Lion Dancer and men playing the female roles) and an entirely Asian cast. Its score is among Sondheim’s finest, especially in the phenomenal “Someone in a Tree,” during which past and present meet, commingle, conjoin, and explode, with one of the most hair-raisingly glorious climaxes ever heard in a Broadway theatre. Pacific Overtures enjoyed only 193 performances, but that it ran at all, much less during the Bicentennial year, is something of a miracle.

Pacific Overtures - Please Hello

“Please Hello”: Yuki Shimoda, center, importuned — and threatened — by Admirals from Britain (Alvin Ing), America (Ernest Harada) and Holland (Patrick Kinser-lau)

Prince’s next show may have seemed a surer thing. On the Twentieth Century (1978) boasted a Hecht and MacArthur pedigree (they based it on an unproduced play by Charles Bruce Milholland called Napoleon of Broadway, a satire of the impresario David Belasco) and movie aficionados might have recalled the hilarious 1934 Howard Hawks movie with John Barrymore and Carol Lombard. The score, maybe his richest, was by Cy Coleman, and the book and the genuinely witty lyrics were by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. However… their concept was not, as might have been expected, hot 1930s Broadway jazz but, inspired by the absurd comic passions of the larger-than-life leading characters, opéra bouffe, which may have been a hard sell. Set largely on the eponymous train, the show had a fabulous, gleaming Art Deco design by Robin Wagner and three indelible comedic performers in John Cullum, Madeline Kahn and Imogene Coca (plus Kevin Kline in an athletic supporting role) but it was a costly show and Kahn was unreliable. Her understudy (later replacement), Judy Kaye, was from the evidence every bit as inspired and musically sound, but it always hurts to have your above-the-title star making a habit of not showing up when fans are expecting her, and Kaye was then an unknown. It won a Best Score Tony® but only ran 449 performances.

On the twentieth century

On the Twentieth Century: The “It’s a Contract” sextet. From left, John Cullum, Madeline Kahn, Dean Dittman, George Coe, Kevin Kline, and Imogene Coca. (Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts)

Significantly, On the Twentieth Century marked the third phase of Prince’s career, as a director only. The increasing cost of Broadway production, plus the ageing-out of his old reliable angels, had made producing less fun and took his attentions away from mounting his shows. From this point to the end of his life, and with few exceptions, Prince was a director only. It may have lost him some money when it came to projects like Evita and The Phantom of the Opera, but he was by then already wealthy enough. (Easy for me to say? When you produce Fiddler on the Roof and have a second house on Majorca you’re not exactly starving.)

The next Prince/Sondheim collaboration yielded a masterwork. The composer had seen Christopher Bond’s 1973 Marxist rendering of the Victorian penny-dreadful Sweeney Todd in London, and thought it might make an interesting chamber musical, with a few songs. He’d intended writing the book himself but as it grew he needed assistance, and called in his friend Hugh Wheeler, who had written the book for A Little Night Music and assisted John Weidman on Pacific Overtures. The piece got larger as it went along, with Sondheim ending up composing what amounted to a demi-operatic score. It’s a show in which music is present throughout, either in song or as underscore (Sondheim wanted a Bernard Herrmann sound, and got it). It also featured the strangest content of the composer’s oeuvre. The original (called The String of Pearls) featured serial murder and unwitting cannibalism, as the victims of the “demon barber” were conveniently baked into meat pies by Sweeney’s accomplice Mrs. Lovett. Bond made Todd less a remorseless villain than a societal victim bent on revenge who, maddened by his inability to wreak his vengeance on the hated judge who sentenced him to exile, raped his wife and took in his daughter (and on whom the jurist now also has lecherous designs), focuses his rage on the entire human species. It was a heavy brew, leavened only by Lovett, now a convivial if criminally opportunistic comedian.

With Prince aboard, and the leads entrusted to Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, Sweeney developed into a black-comedy thriller of epic proportions in its sweep and physical production (Prince and his designer Eugene Lee disassembled an old New England foundry and employed its parts, some of them working, for the set) and the sheer size of the sick joke at its core. In the contours of its themes and content it was absolutely non pariel, in its (no pun intended) execution, a work of genius, and of art. Not even the smallish but growing legion of Prince/Sondheim fans saw it coming.

A Little Priest

Sweeney Todd: Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou performing “A Little Priest,” the most macabre first act finale in Broadway musical history, and the funniest.

The show was overwhelming, in every particular. I count myself fortunate that it was my first Broadway musical seen on Broadway, and that I caught it with what Sondheim called “the unbeatable combination” of Cariou and Lansbury (although, alas, by the time I saw it, in December of 1979, Victor Garber was gone and Sarah Rice had been dismissed). It was also, I could just about swear, the first black-and-white musical I’d ever seen, its deliberate grayness of person, setting and costume mitigated only by the blood, shockingly and vividly red.

If Sweeney had a flaw, it was the size of the physical production, which, while intentional — the cruelty and dehumanization of the Industrial Revolution was a subtextual theme of the show — somewhat dwarfed the action. This was proven to my satisfaction when I acted in a small college production of in 1982, the first such in the Southeastern states (I was Toby), and again when I saw the scaled-down Circle in the Square revival in 1989 starring the splendid Bob Gunton and Beth Fowler. There the major drawback was the minimization of the music, reduced to synthesizer accompaniment and dubbed by Gerald Alessandrini in his Forbidden Broadway series, quite rightly, as Teeny Todd. But I was aware even while watching the original that in Lansbury and Cariou I was being privileged to witness two of the great, galvanic performances in Broadway musical history, to hear in Sondheim’s music and lyrics one of the finest of all American musical theatre scores, and in see in Prince’s staging one of the modern theatre’s most impressive feats of direction. If not the show of the century (I think that was likely Follies, or perhaps the original Pogry and Bess, both of which I can imagine only in the theatre of my mind), Sweeney was certainly one of them.


Prince’s follow-up was not an American show, but the stage version of a British concept album by the creators of a previous successful LP-to-stage hybrid, Jesus Christ Superstar. The Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice Evita (1979) premiered in London, with Elaine Page as Eva Peron. In America there was some revision of the material, and a long tour beginning in California, the release of the 2-LP cast recording pre-dating the Broadway opening on which its Eva, Patti LuPone, who often strained for notes (she later wrote that Lloyd Webber “hated women” and that he would not lower keys to accommodate her voice) but as a star presence was nearly incandescent.

The show was criticized for seeming to glorify its fascist subject by people who, carried away with the power of Prince’s staging (and Larry Fuller’s dance movement) in the first act finale, couldn’t take their irony without a scorecard. A much stronger case could be made, not against the show’s point of view — the inclusion of a Greek chorus figure called Che (Mandy Patinkin in his Broadway musical debut) made that plain enough, or should have — but in critiquing its surface treatment of complex issues and personalities. But Evita certainly had its moments, not least of which were its clever metaphors (revolving power as a game of musical chairs, for instance, and the way the aristos moved together in a fashion not unlike Bob Fosse’s organic “amoebas” and were, late in the show, literally stripped of their possessions) and that chilling first act closure, one so powerful Lotte Lenya recognized in the manipulation of Argentinian voters and media a reflection of what she’d lived through as Weimar Germany collapsed and loosed the Nazi daemon. Interestingly, especially for an inveterate Lloyd Webber skeptic like me — I prefer his pop/rock passages to his better-loved, soupier Puccini imitations — the show actually plays better as a recording, where you don’t mind the elliptical structure or the thin characterizations. But even via a stripped-down, bus-and-truck tour, Evita was something to see.

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Evita - Patinkin, Lapone resized

Just a little touch of star quality: Patti LuPone as Evita with Prince (above) in rehearsals and Mandy Patinkin (below) on stage. (Color photo: Martha Swope.)

With his next show, Prince hit the beginning of what can only be called a long losing streak that was as precipitous a decline as his previous rise had been formidable; he was, at the time, as one with Bennett (A Chorus Line), Fosse (Sweet Charity, Pippin, Chicago) and Gower Champion (Bye Bye Birdie, Hello Dolly… an interesting juxtaposition) in the league of Broadway musical “super-directors,” his name as well-known as those of his songwriters, and his shows, and deficient only in that he did not also choreograph. It began with the ill-conceived Merrily We Roll Along (1981), an adaptation of a depressing, flop Kaufman and Hart drama (there’s a tip-off right there) reconfigured as a musical brimming with un-tested youth, and with Sondheim a reluctant collaborator. The play’s structure, telling the story of its central character’s rise and fall in reverse, was retained, and it was there that the concept really caught fire. Unlike with many musicals (and indeed plays) which peter out after intermission, Merrily‘s second act topped its first, and the songs, largely based around a particular chromatic structure, got better and better until, by the end, when you’d experienced their development and realized how subtly and traditionally they had been expanding all evening, they were both exhilarating and heartbreaking in their emotional pain and their optimistic ebullience: There aren’t many second act builds in American musicals as good as the progress from “Not a Day Goes By” to “Opening Doors” to “Our Time,” and what the ignorati call “show tunes” don’t rate much higher either. But the piece, under Prince’s direction, was frustrating, its Eugene Lee gymnasium sets tacky and its proliferation of characters so confusing to its preview audiences that the creators were reduced to slapping T-shirts and sweaters on the actors with their characters’ names, or phrases like “Producer” and “Best Friend,” emblazoned across their fronts. When Merrily opened it received the worst reviews Prince and Sondheim had gotten yet, and ran 16 performances before shuttering. Sondheim blamed the critics, believing, not without reason, that they were gunning for him and Prince. But while time has been kind to his score, few indeed are those who feel the original production of the show that contained them was under-appreciated.

Merrily - Lonny Price, Ann Morrison, Jim Walton, Sally Klein

Merrily We Roll Along: Lonny Price, Ann Morrison, Jim Walton, Sally Klein

Fortunately, as with Goddard Lieberson at Columbia Records on Sondheim’s earlier flop Anyone Can Whistle, Thomas Z. Shepard recorded the score anyway, preserving a wistful souvenir of a might-have-been that, whatever its flaws as a show, contained a set of songs so good they couldn’t be allowed to languish in artistic limbo. Indeed, Sondheim and James Lapine later revised the show, originally written with George Furth, casting it with rueful adults rather than enthusiastic kids. Yet even Off-Broadway it didn’t run long, and it’s never going to be a rouser with the public, any more than Assassins or Pacific Overtures. The greatest irony in this musical about old friends lay in Prince and his choreographer, Ron Field, nearly coming to blows after a performance, and ending their long friendship and collaboration. They subsequently reconciled, but Merrily’s failure also put an effective end to the artistically compelling, if financially risky, Prince/Sondheim corporation.

Prince’s creative recession continued in 1982 with A Doll’s Life, which he for some mad reason chose to produce as well as direct and which eked out two more performances than Merrily. It was a notably cheerless affair to have a book and lyrics by Comden and Green, picking up Nora Helmer after she slammed the door and performed as a play-within-a-rehearsal, something John Gielgud attempted with his 1964 Hamlet and which perhaps only Orson Welles, in his Moby Dick—Rehearsed, managed to pull off. A Doll’s Life is one of those shows for which you remember the negative reviews more than the songs. I have the cast album. I’ve listened to it once. But two lines from John Simon’s critique in New York magazine have remained with me; of Larry Grossman’s lugubrious score, Simon likened it to “two bars of Sondheim, stretched on a rack” and said of the show as a whole that it “should make passionate door-slammers of us all.” Unsurprisingly, the cast knew the production was headed for the dust-bin. Its star, Betsy Joslyn, knitted as Prince gave his final notes before the opening; when he asked what she was working on she held up her handiwork and replied, “A coffin cover for the show.” Well, at least George Hearn, Cariou’s replacement as Sweeney Todd, got a Tony® nomination out of it.


The downturn in Prince’s fortunes worsened with, in succession: Play Memory (4 performances, 1984), the baseball revue Diamonds (122 performances, Circle in the Square, 1984) and Grind (Larry Grossman again, with Prince producing again… do some people never learn?… April – June 1985). Salvation came, financially if not artistically, with the 1986 Lloyd Webber The Phantom of the Opera, although its raison d’être, for a man of Prince’s convictions, is almost wholly inexplicable. Certainly no one can accuse the director of not giving his all to it, what with subterranean, candle-lit lakes and (at least initially, in London) old-fashioned scene-moving equipment — shades of that New England foundry in Sweeney — but other than desperation I can see no reason for him to have undertaken such a creatively barren, soppy enterprise. But with 13,270 Broadway performances, who knows how many in London, and only Cameron Mackintosh’s accountants aware of the additional revenue generated from touring companies, music sales, recordings and DVDs, Prince’s widow is likely set for life from his cut of this one show alone, not to mention his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren as well. As if to atone, in 1987 Prince assayed the flop Roza, which ran two months before closing, and a revival of Cabaret, which lasted 261 performances, with Joel Grey given top billing now (he was fifth in 1966) for the same role he’d played 21 years earlier.

Kiss of the Spider Woman - Brent Carver, Chita Rivera, and Anthony Crivello

Kiss of the Spider Woman: Brent Carver, Chita Rivera, and Anthony Crivello. (Martha Swope / The New York Public Library) 

Although Prince’s involvement with the musicalization of Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman eventually yielded a Broadway run of over 900 performances, its beginnings spotlighted an episode of ugliness that ultimately destroyed a potentially useful program. In 1990 the Performing Arts Center at SUNY-Purchase created New Musicals to provide “a working home for sixteen new musicals over four years,” one of the first of which was Kiss. Broadway critics were urged to stay away from these workshops but Frank Rich in his magnificent arrogance decided his pronouncements were more important than giving writers, actors and creative personnel the safety to fail more privately; he and others duly hied to Purchase and wrote highly negative reviews that killed the show’s chances for years, and destroyed the New Musicals program in the process. Were it not for the (now-disgraced) Garth Drabinsky and Livent, that might have been the end of it. Drabinsky presented the musical first in Toronto, then in London, before deigning to let Broadway get a look at it. While the show’s Kander and Ebb score is good, it isn’t great, and it may well be that Rich’s criticisms were valid; in his review of the eventual Broadway edition, he wrote that the musical “does not meet all the high goals it borrows from Manuel Puig’s novel. When it falls short, it pushes into pretentious overdrive… and turns the serious business of police-state torture into show-biz kitsch every bit as vacuous as the B-movie clichés parodied in its celluloid fantasies. Yet the production does succeed… in using the elaborate machinery of a big Broadway musical to tell the story of an uncloseted, unhomogenized, unexceptional gay man who arrives at his own heroic definition of masculinity.”

Rich’s self-important tactics at SUNY-Purchase, however, were and remain an example of how those equipped with tunnel-vision and a convenient set of professional ethics are perfectly willing to extinguish a needed corrective to the problems of creative people in what was, and had long been, an increasingly perilous milieu (and which Rich well knew.) He and his cohorts could have gone to Purchase out of curiosity, seen the show, and either kept mum permanently or held off on expressing their opinions until after the workshop. But their egotism, their need to air their verdicts, was stronger than their desire to see new Broadway musicals thrive, or to allow creative artists to experiment without censure. To Rich, the ability to critique without restriction was more important than the nation perhaps getting one or two good shows  out of the experience.

Showboat - John McMartin and cast

Show Boat: John McMartin and company. (Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts)

Prince’s 1993 Livent revival of Show Boat “was deliberately staged to cast attention on racial disparities; throughout the production, African-American actors constantly cleaned up messes, appeared to move the sets (even when hydraulics actually moved them), and performed other menial tasks” (Wikipedia). Naturally, the production was met with protests from self-styled black “leaders” who, predictably, picketed the show — and Prince, whom they screeched at for being that hated thing, a Jew — without seeing it. But then, pressure from Jewish groups forced Prince and company to alter that moment in Cabaret (restored in Bob Fosse’s movie) when the increasingly Nazi-embracing M.C. confides to us that if we could see her through his eyes, his gorilla girlfriend “wouldn’t look Jewish at all.”

It’s a wonder anyone ever attempts anything bold in Western culture.

Parade - Brent Carver and Carolee Carmello

Parade: Brent Carver and Carolee Carmello

Post-Show Boat Prince shows included one of many attempts to interest an indifferent public in Lloyd Webber’s Whistle Down the Wind (1996); a revival of Candide (1997) with Jim Dale as Pangloss, Andrea Martin as the Old Lady and an  unexceptional Harolyn Blackwell as Cunegonde (Prince had previously directed the 1994 Civic Opera House production); and Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry’s Parade (1998), which he initiated. (Prince had asked Sondheim to compose the score, but he passed.) The story of Leo Frank’s arrest, trial, imprisonment and eventual lynching for the rape and murder of 13-year old Mary Phagan, a worker in his Atlanta pencil factory, a crime of which the Jewish Frank was entirely innocent, had previously been explored in an excellent television mini-series (The Murder of Mary Phagan, 1988, starring Jack Lemmon as the former Georgia Governor John Slaton and Peter Gallagher as Frank) but this was prime Prince territory. It ran three months. Although the show and its score were popular with critics and musical aficionados generally, the subject of American miscarriages of justice is no crowd-pleaser, as Kander and Ebb and Susan Strohman discovered to their cost when they mounted their masterpiece The Scottsboro Boys a few years later.

Carrie Hamilton and Carol Burnett resized

Prince’s first theatrical venture in the new century was a heart-breaker: Hollywood Arms (2002), Carrie Hamilton and her mother Carol Burnett’s stage adaptation of Burnett’s memoir One More Time concerning her childhood with her grandmother and her unreliable parents. Well before there was a Chicago or New York production, Hamilton’s lung cancer spread to her brain, and she was killed by the pneumonia that resulted. The play was received rapturously by, of all people, John Simon, who wrote of it:

“Plays about passion are profuse and easy: heterosexual or homosexual, interracial or senescent, kinky or chaste. What is difficult and rare is a play about affection, which is what Carrie Hamilton and Carol Burnett’s Hollywood Arms is. Authentic affection: not syrupy or sentimental, posturing or feel-good-ish, gussied up for theatrical effect. Hollywood Arms is about real people who fight or let one another down, jab and jeer, needle and explode, but also, when need be, help people who are sarcastic or pathetic failures, impoverished and disappointed.

“But Hollywood Arms has yet another form of invaluable affection, that of Harold Prince for the characters and their story. You will never see more feelingful insight, more self-effacing love for their quirks, foibles, and kindnesses, from a director for his stage children, big and small. If only this thoroughly endearing play and production could have been seen by Burnett’s daughter and co-author, Carrie Hamilton, dead before even the Goodman Theatre premiere. One fervently hopes that the joy of such a true creation accompanied her on her final journey.”

Hollywood Arms ran all of 76 performances.

Things like this are part of the reason I no longer write plays.

There were other Prince shows in the next 17 years, but I’m afraid my increasing antipathy and indifference to live theatre generally, and to new musicals specifically, prevents my having much to say about them. In 2003 came the Goodman Theatre production of Sondheim and Weidman’s Mizner Brothers show, now called Bounce (it premiered at the Kennedy Center as Gold!) That engagement represented the extent of Prince’s involvement in the project, which has been revised and re-written for years by its authors and is now known as Road Show. Even my 45-year old veneration for Sondheim has not been sufficient these past 15 years or so to get me to put either the Bounce or Road Show cast recording on the CD player. I’m afraid for me that particular ship not only sailed but foundered, and sunk. I have also not heard the recording, on Ghostlight, of Prince and Uhry’s LoveMusik (2007) based on the letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya and including a laundry list of Weill songs. My ennui regarding Broadway musicals is now so complete that not even Donna Murphy is adequate enticement.

Prince attempted a Jerome Robbins’ Broadway sort of career retrospective in 2015, but aside from a tryout in Japan(!) and at the Manhattan Theatre Club, Prince of Broadway hasn’t made a ripple. This, I’m afraid, is the fate now of Broadway’s old innovators. If they can get an airing for something that isn’t a pre-sold property like a musical retread of some hit movie, they’re lucky; if it runs, it’s a miracle. And what does run is enough to make anyone who cares about theatre, or who used to, give up on it entirely. That’s not to mention the audiences who now, trained by television talent shows, give an automatic standing ovation to everything they see, diminishing the spontaneous tribute to a mere expectation — an accoutrement, as meaningless as the ubiquitous sound-board that has turned the musical into a glorified rock-arena show.

With the American musical reduced now to the “synergy” of Disney shows attempting to cram old animated wine into new live-action bottles and asinine hip-hop editions of American history, it’s no wonder the Princes and Sondheims of the Broadway theatre can find no home there.



I’ve said little here about Harold Prince as a man, but I think his work and his legacy are what matters. My own playwriting was as influenced by the stagecraft of Cabaret, Company, Follies and Pacific Overtures as the plays I read and absorbed by Chekhov, Lanford Wilson, Harvey Fierstein and Larry Kramer, and I am not ashamed to say so just because those shows were “mere musicals.” That Prince had an ego, and foibles, and wasn’t always the nicest person around is a given; he’d not only have been pretty rare not to, he’d have been inhuman. Richard Bissell based a character in his novel (and subsequent play-with-music) Say, Darling on Prince, and Bob Fosse left a wicked impression of him via John Lithgow’s performance as a grasping Broadway director in All That Jazz (1979), even unto Lithgow perching his sunglasses atop his head in a very Princelike fashion. (Both Prince and Sondheim, by the way, took a dim view of Fosse’s achievements, expressing their reservations in a highly self-serving fashion. See Sam Wasson’s biography Fosse.)

Like Fosse, Prince also tried directing movies, but found the experience unsatisfying. Something for Everyone (1970) is a good black comedy (although not nearly as dark as the novel on which it was based) but A Little Night Music (1977) is a mess, losing most of Sondheim’s great score and even transporting — by demand of the picture’s international financiers, I presume — the show’s Bergmanesque Swedish setting to sunny Vienna, I suppose to justify the waltzes.

In 1974 and at the height of his notoriety Prince dictated his theatrical memories as a book that, over the years, has been one of the most well-thumbed in my library. In Contradictions: Notes on Twenty-six Years in the Theatre (Dodd, Mead) he provided context, history and origin for all his shows, from Damn Yankees to Candide. Thankfully, Prince expanded that useful book as Sense of Occasion (Applause, 2017), offering some revised opinions on his previous statements and bringing the reader up to date. Perusing this second volume last winter I was struck by how much I remembered from previous readings in my 20s of Contradictions, and despite my coolness now to theatre, grateful again for what Prince brought to it. I even, reading about the evolutions of Cabaret and Follies, felt some small stirrings of my former passion. Not enough to wipe out my distaste for, and distrust of, the theatre as it is currently constituted in America (and, judging from podcasts from the National Theatre, it’s scarcely better in Britain) but at least sufficient to remind me that there was a time when it all mattered.

And it mattered more for Prince being there.


* Cabaret, Company and Follies all, to a degree, owe something to two musicals: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1947 Allegro and the virtually un-known, sadly un-remembered (and un-recorded!) Kurt Will-Alan Jay Lerner musical Love Life (1948) which among other things ends with its married lovers on a tight-rope, groping their way toward each other. Mark N. Grant: “Alan Jay Lerner described Love Life as a cavalcade of American marriage. The unusual structure of the show alternates scenes chronicling the Cooper family’s progression through successive periods of American history starting in the 1790s with vaudeville-style acts that comment on the main story. The two types of scenes do not overlap until the end of Part II. The Coopers’ ages do not change noticeably despite the 150-year lapse of time.” Grant, it should be noted, wrote the single best book on the American musical theatre I’ve read in years. The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical (Northeastern University Press, 2004) is not only erudite and technically impeccable (the author is also a musician and composer) but expresses admirable disgust at the decline of a once-great popular art form.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Quarterly Report: July — September 2019

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By Scott Ross

Home-viewing from The Armchair Theatre over the last three months; because there isn’t a single bloody thing in the cinemas worth the time, petrol, cash or personal energy it would take to go out. Although I will admit I was convinced by a friend to attend a special screening of Daughters of the Dust… thereby proving the point.

Tootsie Jessica Lang and Dustin Hoffman
Tootsie (1982) Take one vanity project for a notoriously self-involved actor (Murray Schisgal writing a screenplay about acting for Dustin Hoffman); mix with a separate script by Don McGuire concerning an out-of-work performer donning drag for a soap-opera role that borrows a bit too liberally from Some Like it Hot, even unto its blond object of affection and unwanted middle-aged suitors; add in re-writes by a small army of scenarists headed by the great Larry Gelbart and including, un-credited, Barry Levinson, Robert Garland and Elaine May; bake by a director widely known as one of Hollywood’s most notorious writer fuckers (Gelbart claimed the movie was stitched together from any number of scenarists’ drafts), and the result should have been a disaster. Instead, through some weird alchemy it not only wasn’t but somehow those ingredients contrived to blend so well the picture became a small classic of its kind. Revisiting Tootsie from a 35-year remove, it seems almost miraculous: A popular comedy that tickles the mind as often as it does the ribs. And the direction, by Sydney Pollack, never a favorite filmmaker of this writer, looks as good now as it did in 1982; whatever its internal flaws (including a series of consecutive events supposedly encompassing a single evening that Gelbart later wrote was “a night that would have to last a hundred hours”) the picture is strikingly lovely, with Owen Roizman’s sumptuous lighting and the crisp, witty editing by Fredric Steinkamp and William Steinkamp giving it a patina of warmth and sophistication, a rare combination for any movie comedy. Hoffman’s “Dorothy Michaels” ranks as one of the great comic creations in American movies, yet the actor also locates the loneliness of the character — or, rather characters, since everything Dorothy says and does is filtered through Michael Dorsey’s brain and emotions — and an essential sweetness and decency Michael himself lacks when he’s wearing pants.* As the unwitting object of Michael’s interests, Jessica Lange was a revelation in 1982, lightness and gravity in balance, and what she does is still astonishing in the sheer rightness of her every glance, inflection and wistful hesitation. Terri Garr is no less entrancing, in what is surely her best screen performance, and Bill Murray gets the picture’s best lines as Michael’s playwright roommate. (May created the character, and wrote his speeches.) Against his own wishes, Pollack took on the role of Hoffman’s agent, and their scenes together, reflecting some of the very real anger and frustration each felt toward the other, are among the movie’s comic highlights. The great supporting cast includes Dabney Coleman as the sexist television director, Charles Durning and George Gaynes in the Joe E. Brown role(s), Doris Belack as the savvy “daytime drama” producer, Geena Davis as a nurse in the soap-within-a-film’s fictional hospital, and the late Lynne Thigpen as the show’s floor manager. Dave Grusin, who often floundered when composing for dramatic pictures, wrote for Tootsie one of his most felicitous comedy scores. It isn’t funny in itself, nor does it try to be; its alternate moods of peppy urbanity and plangent emotionalism make for a perfect juxtaposition that reflects the plot’s development and moods without attempting either to compete with them, or to ape the action.

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* Hoffman based Dorothy’s soft Southern vocal mannerisms on those of his friend Polly Holiday.


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George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward in the movie’s radiant, moving final moments.They Might Be Giants (1971)

They Might Be Giants (1971) James Goldman has long been one of my favorite writers. While nowhere near as prolific (nor as well known) as his brother William, his smaller output includes the 1965 play and subsequent movie 1968 The Lion in Winter (for which he won an Academy Award); the beautifully compressed book for the landmark Stephen Sondheim/Harold Prince Follies, arguably the single greatest theatrical musical of the 20th century; the wonderfully conceived and unexpectedly moving Robin and Marian (1976); a superb novel about King John, Myself as Witness, in which Goldman re-examined an historical figure he felt he had maligned in his previous writing; and the play on which this lovely picture was based and for which he wrote the beautifully structured adaptation. Hal Prince produced the play’s only major production in London, later castigating himself for hiring the wrong director (Joan Littlewood) for the piece, although Goldman himself said he was unhappy with the script, which he subsequently withdrew from further production. The movie, while disappointing financially — presumably those involved expected another Lion in Winter — is a blissful variation on Arthur Conan Doyle, in which a mad retired jurist (George C. Scott) called Justin Playfair, who believes he is Sherlock Holmes, is examined by a psychiatrist (Joanne Woodward) named Mildred Watson. They meet as antagonists, form an uneasy alliance and drift toward romance, while Playfair seeks a rendezvous with the elusive Professor Moriarty. It may sound twee, and there are many on whom its gentle charms are no doubt lost, but it’s a funny, and surprisingly emotional, rumination on the relative insanity of a brilliant, harmless paranoid and of the increasingly mad society to which he is expected to conform. That last notion no doubt seems trite, but it has seldom been handled with such deftness and wit. Anthony Harvey, who also directed The Lion in Winter, shot the picture with a nervy energy that captures the New York City of the early 1970s, not as if under glass but as a living stage for Playfair’s intrigues. Scott and Woodward tear into their roles with the relish of great actors who know in their bones they’ve got their hands on some of the choicest dialogue around, and the rich supporting cast includes Jack Gilford, Al Lewis, Rue McClanahan, Theresa Merritt, Eugene Roche, James Tolkan, Kitty Winn, Sudie Bond, Staats Cotsworth, F. Murray Abraham, Paul Benedict, M. Emmet Walsh and Louis Zorich. There’s also a brief but extremely effective chamber score by John Barry, arranged and augmented by Ken Thorne. Two home-video versions exist: One (a Universal Vault DVD) running under 90 minutes, reflects the theatrical release while the other, the television edit (on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber) is longer, and includes the wry, delightful extended sequence in an immense Manhattan grocery store. It could, I suppose, be argued that the story doesn’t need the grocery sequence, and the climax plays well without it. But it also seems to me that the movie is enriched by its inclusion, and diminished by its excision. So, caveat emptor.

Dr. Mildred Watson: You’re just like Don Quixote. You think that everything is always something else.

Justin Playfair: Well, he had a point. ‘Course, he carried it a bit too far. He thought that every windmill was a giant. That’s insane. But, thinking that they might be, well… All the best minds used to think the world was flat. But what if it isn’t? It might be round. And bread mold might be medicine. If we never looked at things and thought of what might be, why we’d all still be out there in the tall grass with the apes.


Daughters of the Dust_Trailer

Cora Lee Day as Nana Peazant

Daughters of the Dust (1991) Julie Dash’s dreamlike evocation of Gulla society on a small South Carolina island in the early years of the 20th century was well-received critically but not a box-office success. 20/20 hindsight by knee-jerk commentators now has it that the picture was badly handled by its distributor because its writer-director was not only a woman, but a black woman. Yet I don’t see how this luminously photographed exercise in non-linear rumination could have been a popular success in any era: It’s so diffuse it seems less Impressionistic than merely undefined; we can scarcely tell what the various narrative threads are, much less what they mean. What’s best about the picture, aside from Arthur Jafa’s exquisite cinematography, are the wonderful faces of the expressive actors, especially those of Cora Lee Day as the family matriarch clinging to her African roots and religion, Cheryl Lynn Bruce as her overly-devout Christian granddaughter, and Barbara-O as her mirror opposite, a wayward young woman who left the island for a man but who now is involved with a younger woman. But 60 minutes into this hour-and-52-minute glorified student film my eyes had long since begun to glaze over and even those interesting faces weren’t enough to clear them.


The Last Hard Men - Heston and Coburn

The Last Hard Men (1976) A tough, bloody Western from an unsparing Brian Garfield novel, starring Charlton Heston and James Coburn as old antagonists on a collision course. Although (unlike in the book’s ending) the movie’s climax seemingly leaves his character’s survival in doubt, and while the actor was too young for the role — as Garfield wrote it, the former lawman is in his 60s, and becoming increasingly frail — Heston is quite a good match for the ruthless Coburn, and the filmmakers (Andrew V. McLaglen was the director, and Guerdon Trueblood wrote the script) don’t flinch from the story’s most horrific moment, when the Heston figure’s daughter (Barbara Hershey) is gang-raped by Coburn’s team of escaped prisoners. The role of Hershey’s earnest suitor is the sort of part the young Jeff Bridges could have turned into a third lead by doing almost nothing, and while Chris Mitchum is attractive, he’s completely out of his depth; as an actor he was never much more than the pretty son of a movie star. While the performance of Michael Parks, as the sheriff who accompanies Heston on part of the quest to retrieve his daughter, suffers from his role being less interesting than in the Garfield book, the actors playing Coburn’s gang (Jorge Rivero, Thalmus Rasulala, Morgan Paull, Robert Donner, Riley Hill and especially Larry Wilcox and John Quade) are an impressively frightening bunch and Duke Callaghan’s widescreen cinematography is lustrous. Leonard Rosenman composed a terse, uncompromising score (it was later made available on CD) which was then replaced by a collection of newly-recorded cues from several of Jerry Goldsmith’s  previous 20th Century-Fox titles 100 Rifles (1969), Rio Conchos (1964), Morituri (1965) and the 1966 Stagecoach. I assume this was due to their being more traditional action cues and Western pieces than Rosenman’s dark, brooding compositions. But while they are splendid in themselves, if you’re already familiar with them from their sources they’re a needless distraction.


Invisible Monster titcd

The great title card for one of Jonny Quest‘s creepiest episodes. If only the animation for the show had been this good!

Johnny Quest: The Complete Original Series (1964 – 1965) When I was a child the Saturday morning re-airings of this 1964 one-shot, an impressive attempt by Joseph Barbera and William Hanna to create and direct a weekly prime-time animated adventure series,‡ made an enormous impression. It was the first “serious” animation I’d ever seen, its often eerie plot-lines were, for a 5-year old, fascinatingly scary… and in the titular figure, the irrepressible blond-topped All-American Jonny, lay my first big crush.† The gifted comics artist Doug Wildey designed the show and its central cast: Plucky Jonny, his slightly mystical adopted Indian brother Hadji, father Benton Quest and bodyguard Race Bannon (who, white hair aside, was, somewhat confusingly for me, almost a dead-ringer for my own father). Produced in the so-called “limited” format pioneered by Hanna-Barbera, and which Chuck Jones astutely referred to as “illustrated radio,” the series, re-viewed from an adult perspective, contains highly variable animation; there are times when the characters are beautifully drawn, while at others they are remarkably poorly drafted, and this older viewer could certainly do with less of Jonny’s annoying little dog Bandit. But the stories are nearly always, despite a 26-minute limitation, well-plotted and exciting, often with an agreeable avoidance of earthly explanation for seemingly supernatural phenomenon. Children, like many of their adult counterparts, love to be frightened, and they especially love ghost stories and impossible monsters; it was a consistent reliance on rationality than killed my initial enthusiasm for the later H-B Scooby Doo, Where Are You? Among the pleasures of the series were, and are, the voices, especially the appealing Tim Matheson as Jonny, the undemonstrably masculine Mike Road as Race, the charming Danny Bravo — who seems to have based his vocal characterization on Sabu — as Hadji, Vic Perrin as the show’s recurring villain Dr. Zinn and occasional guest artists such as Keye Luke, Jesse White, J. Pat O’Malley and even, astonishingly, Everett Sloan as an unrepentant old Nazi. Hoyt Curtin’s superb main title theme, with its bracing mix of big band and James Bond, is another asset; most of the incidental music is his, with additional and uncredited compositions by Ted Nichols. Many of the series’ best (and creepiest) episodes were written by William Hamilton: “The Robot Spy,” “Dragons of Ashida,” “Turu the Terrible,” “Werewolf of the Timberland” and “The Invisible Monster.” Among the others of especial note are “The Curse of Anubis” (Walter Black), “Calcutta Adventure” (Joanna Lee), and “Shadow of the Condor” and “The House of Seven Gargoyles” (both by Charles Hoffman). The recent Warner Archives Blu-Ray collection, while it contains few extras, looks terrific.

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† Like Top Cat and The JestsonsJonny Quest lasted only a single prime-time season. But when you’re a child, you’re not counting episodes, and due to repeated Saturday morning re-airings all three shows seemed to run forever.

‡How typical of me that my first big crush would be not another boy but a cartoon character… Still, I don’t know whether it was so much that I was attracted to Jonny as that I longed to be him. And isn’t hero-worship often what early same-sex crushes amount to?


Klute - Fonda and Sutherland (Klute comforts Bree)

Klute (1971)
The truly chilling paranoia thriller starring Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda, who as the call-girl Bree Daniels gives what I consider the finest performance by an American movie actor of the last 50 years.


In the Heat of the Night - Sidney Poitier, Jester Hairston and Rod Steiger

Rod Steiger, Jester Hairston and Sidney Poitier

In the Heat of the Night (1967) This tense, unblinking police procedural coated in a patina of social critique was one of the great successes of its year, which also saw the premier of Bonnie and Clyde. And while the picture is very much of its time in its examination of racist bigotry in the then-current American Deep South, it’s also a brisk, exciting detective thriller that holds up remarkably well, not least due to the crisp direction by Norman Jewison and to the picture’s precise Stirling Silliphant screenplay. Indeed, I prefer Silliphant’s creative adaptation to John Ball’s original novel, in which race is an important component, yet is less central to the narrative’s tensions than in the much bolder, angrier, movie, especially via the incendiary central relationship between Sidney Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs and Rod Steiger’s Chief Gilliespie. It should be remembered that the picture was in release only three years after the murders of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner, and the sense of dangerous rot and slowly simmering violence Jewison captures onscreen is as palpable as the oppressive, humid heat of its Mississippi setting. (Although most of it was  shot in the southern Illinois town of Sparta.) Poitier gives a performance of wit, implacable inner strength and fierce integrity. There are a number of moments in the picture where what we see in a character’s face is more revealing, and quietly powerful, than what is said. Poitier has one such scene, when Steiger dismisses him, and his assistance in the murder investigation. Perhaps the most difficult thing an actor can do is to allow us to see him thinking. Too many actors project thought in those moments, and it’s nearly always phony. With Poitier, the impact registers itself in, first, his disbelief, followed by his fury, and, finally, a soft, subtle smile. He gets it; he’s been here before. Yet none of what we see is obvious, or overdone. Lee Grant, as the widow of the murder victim, has a similar scene where, shocked into silence by the news of her husband’s death, she reacts against Poitier’s gentle attempt to seat her with an anguished, rigid gesture that slowly turns to acceptance and, more potently, the need to be comforted. It’s devastating to watch. As the racist sheriff, Steiger, at the height of his screen prowess, meets his co-star blow-for-blow. Gillespie is as much an outsider in the town as Virgil, and as distrusted by the locals. His tension is coiled deep, and he expresses that inner explosiveness in the way he compulsively chews gum, stopping only when he has something to say, or when comprehension breaks through his consciousness. The supporting roles are so perfectly cast they seem inevitable — absolutely real: Warren Oates as a patrolman with a secret; Larry Gates as  a smooth and powerful old racist; the usually genial William Schallert as the bigoted mayor; Beah Richards as the local abortionist; Quentin Dean as a white-trash slut; Anthony James as a smirking creep; Scott Wilson as a prime suspect in the killing, whose changing relationship to Virgil is far warmer than what transpires between Tibbs and Gillespie; and Jester Hairston as an Uncle Tom butler outraged by Tibbs slapping his employer. (If you look sharp, you’ll also see Harry Dean Stanton as a cop.) That slap was a blow for liberty, and must have resounded sharply in many places across the globe, not merely the Southern United States. The dark, expressive cinematography is by Haskell Wexler — cheated by the constricted budget of a crane, he and Jewison make frequent, and often very effective, use of zoom lenses. Hal Ashby provided the fluid editing, and Quincy Jones’ score, mixing jazz and blues, has a nervous, funky energy perfectly in keeping with the movie’s sense of dark foreboding, and he composed a terrific main title song (with lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman) that’s sung with passionate soul by Ray Charles. Jones’ cue for Wilson’s attempted escape (and suggested by Jewison) is a highlight, puttering out expressively as the murder suspect realizes he’s licked — the musical equivalent of a runner who’s out of breath.


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Ghostbusters (1984) Horror comedy was far from a new concept when Ghostbusters was made — Harold Lloyd starred in something rather redundantly called Haunted Spooks in 1920 — but until 1981 and An American Werewolf in London there had never been one with elaborate special-effects, and even that was modestly budgeted; Ghostbusters cost six times as much (its budget was between $25 and 30 million.) Most of its predecessors tend to be either comedies with a few ghostly appurtenances (cf., Bob Hope’s The Ghost Breakers, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Young Frankenstein and Don Knotts’ The Ghost and Mr. Chicken) or genuine horror with black comedy overtones (The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Theatre of Blood, Phantom of the Paradise and, indeed, American Werewolf in London) but Ghostbusters takes nothing seriously. Its writer/stars, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, see everything as funny, and since The Ghostbusters themselves seldom panic, we spend the entire movie in a state of amused relaxation right along with them; the audience takes its cue from laid-back smart-ass Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman, for whom the entire natural world is a sardonic joke, so why should the supernatural world be any different? Murray’s comic persona is so relaxed he’s like a more sarcastic version of Bing Crosby. The picture is inconsequential — you smile through most of it, even if you seldom laugh out loud — yet at the same time memorable; several of its set-pieces, phrases and gags became instant cultural touchstones, and after seeing the movie you’ll likely never look at a bag of marshmallows the same way. Sigourney Weaver has a good, serio-comic role as the woman whose apartment is being taken over by an ancient deity, Rick Moranis is sweetly oblivious as a dweeby neighbor, Annie Potts is the Ghostbusters’ preternaturally un-fazable secretary, William Atherton is an officious prick from the EPA (why do so many satires go after EPA rather than corporate polluters?) and Ernie Hudson gets a largely thankless role as the token black member of the team. László Kovács shot the movie beautifully, and the veteran Elmer Bernstein composed a score that, anchored to a loping main theme, was almost too effective: Despite his having composed in his long career everything from epics (The Ten Commandments) and Westerns (The Magnificent Seven) to thrillers (The Great Escape) and intimate dramas (To Kill a Mockingbird) and in every conceivable format from symphonic to jazz, the success of Airplane!, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf, Trading Places and Ghostbusters got him typecast for years as purely a comedy composer.


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Touch of Evil (1958) Orson Welles‘ minor masterpiece, and the last time he was permitted the luxury of the studio system’s largess.


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The Pink Panther (1963)
A Shot in the Dark (1964)
The Return of the Pink Panther (1975)

The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976)
Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978)
The Trail of the Pink Panther (1982)

How Blake Edwards took his love for silent comedy routines deep into the post-War pop consciousness.


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Chinatown (1974) The modern classic by Robert Towne and Roman Polanski.


Beetlejuice

Beetlejuice (1988) I misunderstood Beetlejuice when it was new; my contemporary review (fortunately now lost to the landfills) betrayed a certain — and to me, now, inexplicable — inability to keep pace with Tim Burton’s patented blend of amiability and dark comic outrage. It wasn’t that I couldn’t appreciate his often exhilarating blend of comedy and horror; the Large Marge sequence in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure made me laugh so hard I nearly fell out of my seat. But I somehow wasn’t ready for an entire feature with that sensibility, unfettered. Revisiting Beetlejuice now, as I feel compelled to do every few years, I can’t help wondering why my younger self couldn’t relax enough to embrace such a cheerfully anarchic comedy as this one. Written by Michael McDowell (sadly, one of all too many creative men who succumbed to AIDS) and Warren Skaaren (also now prematurely dead, of bone cancer) from a story by McDowell and Larry Wilson, it’s a spook-fest for jaded children, a supernatural comedy that stints neither on the humor nor the paranormal. As the nice young Connecticut couple who discover they’re dead and doomed to live with the wacko modern artist and her bourgeois real-estate developer husband they can’t scare away, Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis embody the spirit of the whole enterprise; they’re too sweetly gentle to make decent ghosts. As the titular “bio-exorcist,” Michael Keaton was a revelation, and his performance still amazes; nothing he’d done in movies up to that point had prepared us for the primal forces he unleashed in himself as Beetlejuice. His non-stop patter, loopy asides, gross-out wit and sheer brazen crudity were like nothing we’d seen in a movie comedy before. I think you’d have to imagine how movie audiences reacted the first time they saw the Marx Brothers to understand the impact that performance had on us in 1988. The strong supporting cast includes a very young Winona Ryder as the developer’s slightly off, death-obsessed teenage daughter; the peerlessly self-satisfied Jeffrey Jones as her father; the ever-treasurable Catherine O’Hara as his nasty, pretentious wife; Sylvia Sidney, in her of her final performances, as Baldwin and Davis’ case-worker, making the most of a role that is really little more than a delicious sick joke; Glenn Shadix as an obnoxious interior designer§; and Dick Cavett as a blasé society snob. Danny Elfman composed one of his brightest early scores, which deftly incorporates some of Harry Belafonte’s calypso hits. The first time I saw Beetlejuice, the use of “Day-O” offended me; now that sequence strikes me as one of the happiest in the picture. That’s one of the perks of revisiting old movies: Realizing that it wasn’t the original, uncategorizable, picture that was to blame for your dismissal of it, and being happy that you’ve lived to become a person who can surrender himself to it.
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§ Although Shadix’s performance struck me at the time as an exercise in extreme stereotype, the actor was himself gay.


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

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976) Nicholas Meyer’s ingenious Sherlock Holmes pastiche.


Blackbeard's Ghost - Ustinov and Jones

Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968) I don’t know how I missed this one when it was released, as I habitually saw every new (or newly reissued) Disney movie, animated or live-action. It’s just possible it didn’t make it to the small Ohio town we were living in then, although every other children’s movie of the time did. In any case, I only discovered it when I came across the Disneyland soundtrack album — receiving the record for Christmas of 1970, I nearly wore it out through re-playing. It was my introduction to Peter Ustinov, who narrated it, and who starred as Blackbeard; the LP featured dialogue, mostly between him and Dean Jones, with a little Suzanne Pleshette shoehorned in, and I was entranced by Ustinov’s idiosyncratic way with a funny line, his ineffable charm, and (to borrow a phrase from Harlan Ellison in a different context) the “ineluctable rodomontade” of his florid verbiage. As I grew older and became more familiar with Ustinov, and with his performances and his work as a playwright and screenwriter, I began to suspect that he had re-written the Blackbeard script (or at least, his lines) as he had on Spartacus. And if you love Ustinov as I do, Blackbeard’s Ghost, while silly, generates a lot of laughter. Although basing their screenplay on a very good children’s novel by Ben Stahl, in which two boys accidentally conjure up the shade of the pirate, still very much the bloodthirsty ghoul of legend, the movie’s writers (Don Da Gradi and Bill Walsh) ditched that premise in favor of pure comedy, making this far tamer Blackbeard’s more-than-reluctant compatriot the new coach of a hopeless college track team. That the coach is played by Jones is a help; whatever criticisms might be levied at the Disney pictures in which he starred, the actor (on whom I had a slight childish crush) always brought enormous conviction to them, and his outbursts of incredulous anger are as ingratiating as the engaging grin that occasionally splits his handsome face. The slapstick in the picture, directed with no special distinction by Robert Stevenson, is sometimes dopey and occasionally better than that, and the invisibility effects by Eustace Lycett and Robert A. Mattey are, as usual with Disney, well done, as are the lovely background matte paintings by Peter Ellenshaw. The screenplay has a pleasing lightness, enriched by what I again assume were Ustinov’s additions. The laughter the Disney Blu-Ray drew from me was considerable, even if nearly all of it was generated by Ustinov, who still makes me roar at lines I memorized off that record album when I was nine. Although Elliott Reid overdoes his bit as a television sportscaster, Pleshette is, as always, simultaneously biting and adorable as Jones’ inamorata; Joby Baker makes a good showing in the unaccustomed role of the villain; Elsa Lanchester gets a good scene or two as Jones’ dotty landlady; Richard Deacon is amusingly dry as the college dean; and Herbie Faye, Ned Glass, Alan Carney and Gil Lamb all have good bits in Baker’s restaurant-cum-gambling den. The plot revolves in large part around Blackbeard’s old home, maintained as an hotel by his descendants, little old ladies with nothing else to cling to. I mention this because one of them — and I have no idea which — is identified on the imdb as Betty Bronson. That’s a name more forgotten now than it was 50 years ago, but 45 years before, that Bronson was enchanting youngsters as the screen’s first Peter Pan. I would like to think that Walt Disney, one of whose final productions Blackbeard’s Ghost was, knew that, and gave the old trouper a job. Anyway, it would be pretty to think so.


INTO THE WOODS

Anna Kendric sings “On the Steps of the Palace,” my favorite number in Stephen Sondheim’s dark/light score. “He’s a very smart Prince / He’s a Prince who prepares / Knowing this time I’d run from him / He spread pitch on the stairs…”

Into the Woods (2014) Although I have been a Sondheim fanatic since discovering the Company cast album in 1976, and while the original production of Into the Woods was the first Broadway musical I saw before its cast recording had been released, I deliberately avoided the movie of it when it was new, on the basis of three proper names with which it was associated: “Disney,” “Rob” and “Marshall.” Perhaps only in Hollywood could a minimally talented hack like Rob Marshall reap such rewards (and a-wards) by removing the guts from ballsy musical plays like Chicago and Nine. After countless producers and screenwriters, including Larry Gelbart, had worked at it, what was Marshall’s great “break-through” on Chicago? Turning all the musical numbers into dream-fantasies Renee Zellweger imagines. If you have to justify why people are singing and dancing in a musical, why the fuck are you making a musical? Still, with a screenplay by James Lapine, the original book writer and director of Into the Woods, perhaps there was only so much damage Marshall could do to it. Well, it was someone’s brilliant idea to cast the magnificent Simon Russell Beale as the Baker’s Father and then butcher his role so completely he’s left with no songs and only a couple of lines, confusingly delivered, since we can’t tell who he is, whether he’s real or a phantom, and haven’t any idea whether his son (James Corden) knows either; and to let Chris Pine as an 18th century prince sport a trendy two-day growth of beard on his chin.‖ The picture looks splendid, which I attribute largely to its cinematographer Dion Beebe, its set decorator Anna Pinnock, its costumer Colleen Atwood and its production designer Dennis Gassner. And it’s largely well cast, with actors who can sing: Corden; Meryl Streep, sardonic but subdued as The Witch; lovely Emily Blunt as The Baker’s Wife; cute Daniel Huttlestone as a full-throated Jack; Lilla Crawford as a foghorn-voiced Little Red Riding Hood; Johnny Depp as her Wolf; Tracey Ullman as Jack’s Mother; and Anna Kendrick who, although attractive only from a single angle… and that one her director seldom favors… is an otherwise charming and effective Cinderella. Into the Woods was significantly better than I’d expected. Yet I still tremble whenever I hear another name yoked with this director’s: “Rob,” “Marshall”… and Follies. Hasn’t that poor show suffered enough?

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‖As my friend Eliot M. Camarena once asked, do people like that when they’re children announce, “When I grow up, I wanna look like Fred C. Dobbs!”?


the-art-of-love-lg

The Art of Love (1965) A surprisingly brainless affair to have come from the typewriter of the witty Carl Reiner, riding high in 1965 with the deserved success of The Dick Van Dyke Show, which he created and oversaw, and for which he wrote many of the most memorable early episodes. The best thing about this moderately black farce concerning a failed American artist in Paris whose supposed suicide instantly drives up the prices fetched for his work by his duplicitous best friend (James Garner) is Van Dyke as the artist. His comedic timing, seemingly boneless body and inimitable way with a line or a situation are the equal of the great comedians he worshiped, and it’s one of the great ironies of modern history that he came along at a time when movie and television comedies were so often loud, witless and inane. Had Blake Edwards not already collared Peter Sellers and Jack Lemmon, what a find Van Dyke would have been for that fellow student of slapstick! Reiner can’t really be blamed for the general dopiness of the movie, since he was working from an existing story by two other writers (Alan Simmons and William Sackheim) and the movie’s young director, Norman Jewison, doesn’t appear to have been a great deal of help to him. The Art of Love is attractive to look at — it was shot by Russell Metty — but inert, marking time with things like Angie Dickinson’s fainting shtick (it’s funny the first time), Elke Sommers’ perpetual innocent act and the braying of Ethel Merman, apparently cast as a madam just so she could belt out an instantly forgettable nightclub number. The usually ingratiating Garner has little to play here but his character’s cheesy self-centeredness, and Reiner stoops to such things as plunking a cartoon Brooklynite Yiddishe couple (Irving Jacobson and Naomi Stevens) in the middle of Paris. Still, Jay Novello has a couple of funny bits as a nervous janitor and little Pierre Olaf does miracle work as an umbrella-toting police detective, Cy Coleman provided a perky score (with additional music by Frank Skinner), and DePatie-Freleng came up with some modestly amusing main title animation. There’s little excuse, however, for a comedy — especially one with Dick Van Dyke — whose only big laugh comes at the very end, and absolutely none for its indulging in such feeble wheezes as the periodic introduction of a Madame Defarge-like hag, complete with knitting needles, who shows up every now and then to screech her delight at Garner’s impending execution. But at least I now understand what my mother meant when she once told me that after seeing this one on television when I was a boy I walked around the house for a week saying, “Guillotine! Guillotine!”


Murder by Decree

Murder by Decree (1978) That Sherlock Holmes occupied a revered, albeit fictional, place in the same late Victorian Britain that saw the appalling murders in Whitechapel has intrigued Sherlockians for decades. What more natural meeting could there be than between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brilliant consulting detective and “Saucy Jacky,” as that figure of horror known popularly as Jack the Ripper styled himself in a letter to the papers? Derek Ford and Donald Ford (the former known primarily for his snickering sex comedies) imagined Holmes investigating the murders in the 1965 A Study in Terror, and the same year in which this more recent attempt was released saw the publication of Michael Didbin’s dark little novel The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, very much concerned with Jack. The elements are there even in the mind’s eye: The dimly gaslit cobblestone streets, the hansom cabs and private cabriolets, the enveloping fog that swallows up forms, faces and screams of terror and pain. That Bob Clark, the onlie begettor of Porky’s should, of all people, have directed as beautiful a fiction as Murder by Decree is as puzzling as his making that perfect adaptation of Jean Shepherd, A Christmas Story. But then, as Orson Welles once told Peter Bogdanovich, “Peter, you only need one.” The literate screenplay by the playwright John Hopkins emphasizes a more riant, and more passionate, Holmes than is the norm, and Christopher Plummer could scarcely be bettered in the role as the filmmakers, if not Conan Doyle, conceived it. His performance reaches two peaks, one infinitely quiet (his reaction to Geneviève Bujold’s heartbreaking madwoman), the other bristling with outrage at what his betters (including John Gielgud as the Prime Minister, unidentified in the picture but clearly made up to resemble Robert Gascoyne-Cecil) have been up to. Hopkins also, blessedly, gives us a Watson who is as far from the Nigel Bruce model as can be imagined. And while the irreplaceable James Mason is a bit hoary for the role, his aplomb is undeniable; a moment of especial charm is the way he expresses dismay at Holmes, and with a look of genuine hurt, when the former squashes the lone pea on the doctor’s plate. And if he is occasionally the voice of hidebound Empire, Mason’s (and Hopkins’) Watson is also equally as capable of wit as Holmes as, for example, when Sherlock asks his compatriot why his friend deems him only “the prince of detectives” and wishes to know who is king. I won’t spoil the joke here, nor the conclusion of this intricately plotted exercise, based on some theories by Elwyn Jones and John Lloyd in their contemporaneous book The Ripper File. The exceptional cast includes a starchily smug and imperious Gielgud; the wrenching Bujold; Frank Finlay as an uncharacteristically deferential Inspector Lestrade; David Hemmings as the police inspector in charge of the case (and who bears absolutely no relationship to the very real Frederick Abberline); Susan Clark as a heartrending Mary Kelly; Anthony Quayle as the dangerously reactionary Sir Charles Warren; Peter Jonfield as a chillingly psychotic chief villain; and Donald Sutherland as the shaken spiritualist Robert Lees, who believes he’s seen the Ripper. Despite a few unnecessary visual flourishes, Clark’s eye is nearly unerring, abetted to an exceptional degree by the rich and expressive cinematography by Reginald H. Morris and the astonishing production design of Harry Pottle; I don’t know whether Pottle is responsible for the staggeringly effective matte paintings of London used in the picture, but whoever painted them, they put you absolutely there. The only real miscalculation in the movie is the highly derivative musical score by Paul Zaza and Carl Zittrer from which I heard distinct liftings from John Williams (the scene in Jaws of Richard Dreyfus investigating Ben Gardner’s boat), Jerry Goldsmith and Bernard Herrmann (those eerie strings) and Richard Rodney Bennett (the opening sequence of Murder on the Orient Express) and in which — aside from the plaintive traditional Irish tune for Mary Kelly — there is little that is either original, interesting, useful or pleasing to the ear.


Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross