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

Standard

By Scott Ross

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


I. Writers

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


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

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

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

Toni Morrson resized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Day in the Death of Joe Egg resized

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

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

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

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

Tribute - Lemmon by Hirschfeld resized

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

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

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

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

John Simon resized

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

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

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


II. Artists/Cartoonists

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

Howard Cruse, 75.Howard Cruse 750x_0

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


III. Music

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

Michel Legrand resized

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

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

André Previn at the piano resized

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

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

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

The Leon Redbone Movie - 5) Editorial Opinion resized

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

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

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



IV. Nonesuch


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

Damn… the choices.



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

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

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

Standard

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.”)


she-loves-me-1963-cook-massey-conforti

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.

Hal Prince and Patti LuPone Evita.jpg

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

But what if Mr Simon doesn’t like Heaven?

Standard

By Scott Ross

John Simon - Moose Murders

I guess he forgot his “I Survived Moose Murders” T-shirt?

Years ago there was a theatre critic called Percy Hammond who was famous for his dyspeptic opinions of the local offerings. When it was announced that he was to be made a war correspondent in the 1914 conflict, one wit asked, “But suppose Hammond doesn’t like the war?” I imagine something like my headline may have occurred to some in the New York theatre when it was reported that John Simon had died at 94… although many, I suspect, will imagine he went directly to Hell, there to sit in heated splendor beside his spiritual brother, Satan.

Inevitably referred to as “acerbic” (which he joked may have had something to do with his having been born a Serb) and as either “acid” or “vitriolic,” as boring a pair of epithets for his writing as “tuneless” and “un-hummable” were for the earlier music of Stephen Sondheim, John Simon (1925 – 2019) was both more cruel about the physiognomy of performers than was strictly necessary (if you’re not playing a romantic lead, who cares whether you’re homely or overweight?) and, as he rightfully accused Kenneth Tynan, much less reliable a film than a theatre critic.

As a writer on theatre, however, Simon was seldom less than erudite, masterly and — this will doubtless enrage some, particularly those with only a cursory knowledge of his output — fair. Simon, as we all do, had his pets (Ingmar Bergman, Fritz Weaver, Philip Bosco and Lanford Wilson spring immediately to mind) but they were, generally, very good pets indeed, and as vicious as he could occasionally be — the periodic attacks on Barbra Streisand and Austin Pendleton were all the evidence some people needed to proclaim him an anti-Semite — Simon’s opinions were usually just.

Usually. I cannot fathom how a man of Simon’s intelligence and erudition could refer to the character played by Kathy Bates in Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother as “a fatty,” for example, and his waffling on artists could be as baffling as it was infuriating: The same composer whose work, for Simon, enriched Chinatown in 1974 was, in ’75, due to his emulating Stravinsky for The Omen, “that pretentious hack Jerry Goldsmith.” (See Michael Feingold’s rather specious obituary of Simon in American Theatre* for a similar anecdote concerning André Ernotte, a man I became quite fond of when he directed me in a production of a short Brecht play in 1985.) Then too there were his, on the one hand, admirable refutations of both Nixonism and Vietnam and, on the other, his writing movie reviews for William F. Buckley’s National Review, as well as his weird resistance to full acceptance of homosexuals — he was capable even as late as the early ’90s of referring to a new play as “faggot nonsense”; of another, in the mid-’80s, he was heard to fume, “Homosexuals in the theatre! I can’t wait ’til AIDS gets all of them!” (He later apologized.) But despite that now infamous incident of Sylvia Miles dumping her salad on his lap — it became, he noted, an increasingly impressive entrée as the years went on — a friend who knew many members of the New York theatre community in the 1970s and ’80s tells me that each of these actors could recite with glee his or her favorite negative review of their work by Simon. And anyway, I would rather the sometimes insufferably inflexible standards of John Simon than the panting avidity of a Ben Brantley, for whom the latest staggering abortion officially sanctioned by the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization is, rather than an appalling travesty, “altogether wonderful.”

In the area of movies, Simon and Pauline Kael famously traded blows in print. Her observation that she did not believe a critic should be able to enjoy only “the highest and the best” was by implication rather obviously aimed at his well-known aesthetic. (How many other movie critics of the period could she have been referring to?) He on the other hand considered her taste irredeemably vulgar if not altogether Barbaric; in a review of one of her 1970s collections, Simon was flabbergasted by Kael writing that we were living through “a legendary period for movies.” She was nearly alone in recognizing this contemporaneously and time, of course, has proven her entirely correct. A friend once said he didn’t think Simon really liked movies, or at any rate did not take them as seriously as he did theatre, music, literature and fine art. I demurred; he loved movies as much as Kael. What he didn’t care much for were American movies. This is perhaps understandable; he grew up abroad and his appreciation of his adopted nation’s popular culture had not been inculcated in him from birth. This is perhaps understandable; he grew up abroad and appreciation of his adopted nation’s popular culture had not been inculcated in him from birth as it is for us natives. Interestingly, Simon (according, anyway, to Brendan Gill) was so terrified of the tiny Kael that when encountering her in public he became uncharacteristically tongue-tied.

Daniel Rosenblatt, Pauline Kael, John Simon and Dwight MacDonald

Daniel Rosenblatt, Pauline Kael, John Simon and Dwight MacDonald at a symposium. Simon had as much praise for MacDonald as he had opprobrium for Kael.

Yet there was, on balance, more in Simon to embrace than to deplore. He was, for instance, unique among theatre critics (or any critics) in being multilingual, and could for example so splendidly judge the efficacy or ill-favor of various Ibsen translations that one wished he had done his own. The best evidence in his favor are two collections from 1975: Singularities: Essays on the Theatre, 1964 – 1974, which includes some of his best essays, and Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theatre, 1963 – 1973. In them you will find a bracing wit and a strong intellect confronting the best and the worst the American theatre had to offer during those essential years. Additionally, and whatever his reputation, Simon was at his best, as are all great critics, airing not his (sometimes hilariously expressed) hatreds, but singing his enthusiasms… and when he loved, no one sang with more elegiac euphoria than John Simon. One example of many was his final word on the Jason Miller play That Championship Season, in which Simon opined that if a play as demonstrably great as this was allowed to fail, “Broadway itself deserves to die.”

Speaking of death, Simon got off what I consider one of the great bons mot when, in his review of (I think) What’s Up, Doc? he observed that if Streisand were to be hit by a Mack truck, “it would be the truck that would die.” The use of the word “die” at the end is the essence of wit rather than mere sarcastic humor; it explodes the statement, conjuring up an uproarious image that perfectly caps the joke. Simon could also, like Falstaff, be not merely witty in himself but the cause that wit is in other men, as in Gore Vidal’s, “What a nightmare it must be, to wake up every morning and know you are John Simon.” Peter Bogdanovich was so incensed by Simon he named the comic villain played by Kenneth Mars in What’s Up, Doc? “Hugh Simon” in negative tribute. It didn’t bother Simon in the least. What might have was Bogdanovich’s assertion, to Dick Cavett, that Simon was “a pseudo-intellectual.” No. Simon was a fully-fledged intellectual, and Bogdanovich ought to have known the difference.


There was perhaps no review more piquant and revealing of a certain sordid Broadway reality than Simon’s critique — verified by the playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who was there — of the now legendarily dreadful 1980s comedy Moose Murders, at which the sparse audience was treated to the overwhelming and unavoidable odor of fresh vomit. In Simon’s view, and he wasn’t alone, the show became its own olfactory metaphor.

Like many writers, Kael included, Simon composed his own headlines for his magazine reviews. My all-time favorite of his, in reference to the title of a meretricious C.P. Taylor play he panned therein, ran in New York in the 1980s: “All’s Well That Ends Good.”

I didn’t even need to read the review after that… although I did. I also attempted to read Good and couldn’t get through the first act. I can’t tell you, now, why I found Taylor’s play so dreary; but Simon’s one-line critique has long outlived in my memory the drama that inspired it. What more can we ask of a great critic?


*Feingold finds something odd and tragic about a man in his 90s continuing to attend, and to write reviews of, theatrical productions. When you’re 94, Mr. Feingold, perhaps you’ll tell us with what lofty pursuits you fill your waking hours? Or will you simply give up, and stare at the wallpaper?

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

The Leaping Sort-Of

Standard

By Scott Ross

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

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

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

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

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

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

And if they haven’t, then why in Hell should we listen to them?


Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

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

Standard

By Scott Ross

The Life and Times of Porgy and Bess

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

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

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

Chapin - Everything Was Possible

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

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

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

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

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

The Season

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

besttoptheriseandfall-180814035241-thumbnail-4

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

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

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

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

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

Hirschfeld on Line


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Journey to the Center of the Theatre resized

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

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

Notes on a Cowardly Lion resized

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

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

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

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

Tom - The Unknown Tennessee Williams resized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fireside Companion to the Theatre

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

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

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

The Theatre Art of Boris Aronson resized

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

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

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

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

Wonder of Wonders A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Sam Wasson, Fosse.  This long, comprehensive, exceptionally well researched biography of a figure who has been one of my theatrical touchstones for decades, Fosse is endlessly fascinating and often problematic, but a must for aficionados of the man, his achievements, and musical theatre (and movie) history in the post-war era.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2018/04/17/the-long-audition-fosse-me-and-sam-wassons-fosse-2/

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

Zadan - Sondheim and Co. resized

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


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Zodiac (2007)

Standard

By Scott Ross

It’s tempting to wonder what the fate of Zodiac might have been had it been made, say, 25 or even 15 years earlier. (Although if it had been, it wouldn’t be the same picture.) A few of the best movies of any given year perform dismally at the box-office, of course; who, in their time, saw Make Way for Tomorrow or Dodsworth? There was a period, however, and not so long past, when it was exceedingly rare that a film this good — even great — was seen by so few people. Today, chances are it won’t get made at all, or will be produced only on a marginal budget, or with compromises that cripple its very originality and essential integrity, and still few serious moviegoers will partake of it.

Among its many remarkable achievements, Zodiac absolutely recreates the look and feel of its places and times. This was achieved to a certain degree with strikingly seamless CGI — one of the very few instances in recent memory of computer imagery serving the movie rather than, as is the overwhelmingly usual case, the other way around. But, as with any complex work of art, the reasons Zodiac succeeds so stunningly well as a picture are manifold, set off by four distinct, intelligent decisions.

There is, first, the determination of its filmmakers — the screenwriter James Vanderbilt, the producer Brad Fischer and the director David Fincher — to treat the material without sensationalism, excessive gore or pat conclusions. Since no definitive guilt has ever been established for the killer, or killers, responsible for what became known in the late 1960s and early 1970s as “the Zodiac murders” in and around San Francisco, the filmmakers (as with Robert Graysmith, the author of two related books on which the picture was based) can only speculate, and that, in the case of the movie, without absolute conviction.* Second, the creative team’s centering their story not on Zodiac but the effect of his (their?) killings on several people associated with the case either directly (the detectives Dave Toschi and Bill Armstrong and, to a lesser degree, the crime reporter Paul Avery) or indirectly (Graysmith himself, and his young family.) Third, their laudable determination to eschew dwelling on the murders themselves in favor of sharp, shocking indications that disturb as much as, if not more than, more explicit illustration would have. And, finally, their equally salubrious decision to concentrate on the unsettling ripples with which these unsolved, violent crimes penetrate, not merely the surface but the essential core of those who become, as Graysmith and Toschi do, obsessed with them.

Zodiac9

Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) really knows how to show a date (Chloë Sevigny) a good time.

Indeed Graysmith, a Chronicle cartoonist at the time of the murders and not even a reporter, becomes so enraptured by “Zodiac” that obsession is almost too polite a word. Although Toschi too is deeply committed to solving the cases, he has other work to do, and does it. Avery’s situation is altogether more pitiable; after being directly threatened, the flamboyant, arrogant reporter becomes (in the picture, anyway) by turns, easily startled, furtive, and increasingly alcoholic. In some terrible way, the filmmakers suggest, Paul Avery was Zodiac’s last, unclaimed, victim.

Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) before the eventual deterioration.

Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) before the eventual deterioration.

It’s perhaps no accident that Zodiac is among the best-cast movies of its time, just as All the President’s Men was in its: Fincher reveres, as I do, that 1976 investigation by William Goldman and Alan J. Pakula into Watergate and its eventual decoding by Woodward and Bernstein. And too, the starkly lit look of the Chronicle in Zodiac echoes the visualization of the Post in the Pakula picture, and Graysmith stands in well for “Woodstein,” notably during his nocturnal adventures, which share something of Robert Redford’s occasionally frightening experiences. Jake Gyllanhaal does well by Graysmith despite being, in my experience of his work, utterly incapable of convincingly playing a heterosexual. He’s outshone considerably by Mark Ruffalo’s alternately charming, affable and no-nonsense Dave Toschi, and by Robert Downey, Jr.’s superbly illuminated Paul Avery. Equally impressive, in less spectacular roles, are Anthony Edwards as Toschi’s partner Bill Armstrong; Chloë Sevigny as Graysmith’s eventual second wife; John Carroll Lynch as the prime suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen; Brian Cox in a marvelous turn as that appalling fame-whore Melvin Belli; and the always interesting, and deeply missed, Phillip Baker Hall, splendid as the SFPD’s handwriting expert. Charles Fleischer, the once and future Roger Rabbit, contributes, in what just may be the most hair-raising sequence in the movie, a small miracle of a cameo as an oxymoronically bland yet ineluctably sinister cinema manager.

Zodiac movie image Mark Ruffalo

The distinctive manner in which Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) wore his service revolver was immortalized by Steve McQueen in Bullitt. He was also the reluctant inspiration for a very different sort of San Francisco cop, Eastwood’s Dirty Harry Callahan, whose initial picture was a thinly-disguised Zodiac knock-off. (Anthony Edwards at left.)

Brian Cox as Marvin Belli.

Brian Cox as Melvin Belli.

Graymith (Gyllanhaal) with Philip Baker Hall as Sherwood Morrill.

Graymith (Gyllanhaal) with Philip Baker Hall as Sherwood Morrill.

zodiac-charles-fleischer-header5

Charles Fleischer as Bob Vaughn, in the movie’s most unnerving scene.

There are, to be sure, a few aspects of Zodiac that either puzzle unnecessarily, or which are inconsistent. (An inconsistency may be minor and still confuse.) Why, for example, when Graysmith says he has two children, do we only see one, until he remarries? Further, we don’t know why he’s single, or how he has custody of his young son. Is he divorced? Widowed? And where is that other child? The puzzles are more problematic. Why is so little made, for example, of the physical differences between the killer (or killers) at Vallejo and Lake Barryessa and the suspect in the murder of San Francisco cabbie Paul Stine? The former are said to have been committed by a very large man, possibly bald, or at least with lank hair, the latter by a smaller man with a crew cut. (And whose clothing, moreover, was not noticed to have been spattered with blood.) This is no small matter, for much of the endless speculation about the case hinges on such disparities. Indeed, Graysmith and others speculate that The Zodiac may have worn wigs to disguise his appearance, something James Vanderbilt’s screenplay does not address — or, if it did, the reference was cut. You can easily disguise your hairstyle, but altering your physique, and your height, are knottier (if not necessarily insoluble) problems. Additionally, for a movie as scrupulous and intelligent as this one, there is rather too much reliance on accepted theories about Zodiac. Some strong questioning of circular thinking may have been in order here.

MCDZODI EC056

The banality of evil? John Carroll Lynch as Arthur Leigh Allen at the climax of Zodiac.

According to Fincher, one of the edits the studio insisted upon before release of the 157-minute theatrical cut (his own cut runs 162) was the elimination of one of its more compelling sequences, available in the so-called “Director’s Cut” on DVD and Blu-ray, in which Toschi and Armstrong rattle off to an unseen magistrate their reasons for seeking a search-warrant via speaker-phone, and await the answer. Since Fincher was emulating in Zodiac, both for his cops and for Graysmith, the slogging labor Woodward and Bernstein go through in All the President’s Men — the scene echoes the lengthy one in ATPM in which Pakula holds on Redford at his desk as he juggles telephone calls as well as the later, crucial scene in which Bernstein and his informant misunderstand each other — this mandated omission is doubly irksome. And it points, once again, to the real problem facing the serious American filmmaker today: How does one cope with an increasingly impatient and sub-literate audience which, in addition to being unable or unwilling (if not indeed both) to follow a reasonably complex narrative, is accustomed to, and demands, a thrill-a-minute approach to everything it sees, with grand mal seizure-inducing cutting to match?

John Simon concluded his original, rave review of the Jason Miller drama That Championship Season by noting that if this play did not succeed, Broadway itself deserved to die. Zodiac, as far as I am concerned, says the same thing about American movies. That a film this good could not find a substantial audience, and did not succeed in pecuniary terms, indicates that the current Hollywood too deserves death, and the sooner the better.


*Graysmith has many critics, and his certainty that Arthur Leigh Allen was the Zodiac is shared by none of them.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Post-Script: April 2014
I neglected in the above to make mention of two additional aspects of Zodiac that contribute so mightily to its effectiveness: Its look, and its score, both effectively bifurcated. The look is the work of the late Harris Savides, the picture’s cinematographer, who gave it two, equally distinctive aspects, of light and of dark: The muted glow of its Northern California exteriors by day and the deeply unsettling blankness of its many night sequences. The score is comprised largely through pop songs of the period that serve as guideposts to their times, and partly by David Shire’s minimalist chamber accompaniment. (That he also memorably scored All the President’s Men is surely not coincidental.) Shire’s score owes something to Herrmann’s music for Psycho but only in passing; the rest is the nearly unerring genius of a composer who has been utilized far too seldom by American filmmakers but whose scores are, without exception, splendid. Fincher’s alternating use of period Top 40 items like “Easy to be Hard,” “Soul Sacrifice,” “Jean” and “Baker Street” place the scenes squarely within their chronology and, occasionally, add more than a frisson of atmosphere: After seeing Zodiac I can virtually guarantee you will never hear Donovan’s “Hurdy-Gurdy Man” in quite the same way.

Declaration of Principles

Standard

I regard criticism as an art, and if in this country and in this age it is practiced with honesty, it is no more remunerative than the work of an avant-garde film artist. My dear anonymous letter writers, if you think it is so easy to be a critic, so difficult to be a poet or a painter or film experimenter, may I suggest you try both? You may discover why there are so few critics, so many poets. — Pauline Kael, “Replying to Listeners,” KPFA. January, 1963

By Scott Ross

Although I think of myself primarily as a playwright, I’ve spent a large part of my creative energies over the years in criticism of various kinds: Literary, musical, theatrical and cinematic. It doesn’t make one wealthy, but it puts a few bucks in the kitty… or used to, before the advent of wire-service copy as ubiquitous substitute for the local critic. It can also, when one isn’t forced to sit through too much brain-rotting garbage, be a useful intellectual exercise that, if properly performed and with the requisite seriousness of purpose, improves the writer’s mind and, possibly, his innate talents in other literary areas. If any.

While I don’t regard criticism itself, as Kael did, as an art-form (nor, as does John Simon, as an important branch of literature) there are few pursuits quite so pleasurable to me as reading — or even better, writing — a cogent, perceptive review that calls forth everything of value from its author. In this vein, I esteem Pauline Kael, for all her flaws, as ideal. Woody Allen famously said of her that she had everything a great critic needs, except judgment. There may be some truth to that, in the aggregate. At her best, however, there was no American movie critic more engaged, and engaging, than Kael even if, or when, you found yourself arguing with her vociferously. Because her interests were so varied and intelligent, she brought a great deal more to bear on her movie writing than merely a passion for the medium. Kael’s love for, and interest in, opera, philosophy, theatre, literature, music, social thought and politics informed every critique she wrote. As wrong as you might have thought her, she was never dull, and seldom less than intellectually bracing.

Apropos Kael’s remark, above, which gives my blog its title, James Agee is the only major American movie critic who was also a poet… and a minor one.

That’s something in my case about which you need never concern yourself.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross


Post-Script, September 2019
Re-reading this today, I feel I should amend one claim: It may be true, as I wrote above, that Kael “was never dull”… but she could be boring. (The two are not necessarily the same.) Her writing on Goddard bores me to such a degree my eyes glaze over just thinking about it.