Canvas sky and muslin tree: “Paper Moon” (1973)

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By Scott Ross

Paper Moon is a gorgeous evocation of the Depression era Middle-West, filtered through the superb Alvin Sargent adaptation of Joe David Brown’s seriocomic novel Addie Pray. Peter Bogdanovich, fresh off the one-two punch of The Last Picture Show and What’s Up, Doc?, engaged the great cinematographer László Kovács to work magic in black and white; together they made a serious comedy, one whose imagery bears comparison to the 1930s photographs of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans yet which wears it, for the most part, lightly. It concerns Ryan O’Neal’s bunco expert Moses (“Moze”) Pray — he cons widows with Bibles gilt-embossed with their names, allegedly ordered by their late husbands — and the precocious orphan (Tatum O’Neal) he’s trying to take to her aunt’s house against her will and who may or may not be his illegitimate daughter.

Paper Moon - Tatum O'Neal, Ryan O'Neal

Tatum O’Neal is never more appealing in Paper Moon than when she smiles.

Bogdanovich worked with Sargent on restructuring the screenplay, removing it from the Deep South of Brown’s book and essentially only filming the first half. The second, involving an elaborate con intended to fleece a supposedly rich old woman, feels less organic than the first, set as it is in New Orleans rather than small Southern towns and keeping Addie and Moses (called “Long Boy” in the novel) apart for long stretches. It was a smart idea of Bogdanovich’s as well to pay off Moze and Addie’s escape from the law by having the rather sinister Kansas Sheriff (John Hillerman) track them down in Missouri and give Mose a brutal beating — which, fortunately, the filmmakers don’t suffer us to watch.

The Sheriff and his bootlegger twin brother are far from the only examples of period Americana Addie and Moze encounter: There are also the widows on whom they fob off their Bibles (and to whom, in some odd way, they’re doing a sentimental kindness); the friendly shopkeepers and clerks on whom they perpetrate that bit of grift involving making change which, if you’ve ever been its intended victim, as I once was while working as a bookseller, you well remember the sensation of; a pack of strange sibling hillbillies led by Randy Quaid whose rattletrap truck Mose attempts to swap for the snazzy Ford V-8 he knows every lawman in Kansas will soon be on the lookout for; a gullible hotel clerk (Burton Gilliam) who thinks he looks like a matinee idol; and an outrageous cooch dancer-cum-part-time whore called Trixie Delight (Madeline Kahn) and her adolescent maid Imogene (the astonishing P. J. Johnson). Although Johnson, no actress, does very little, she’s such a natural that her every word and gesture seem wonderful, and she’s aided immeasurably by her director’s cutting; her throwaway line about Miss Trixie (“I tried to push her out of a window in Little Rock once”) is even funnier for the abrupt cut that happens just as we’re wondering if we really heard her right.

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Madeline Kahn as Miss Trixie is so good she lifts the picture into the comedic stratosphere. At the director’s request, Sargent wrote Kahn a beautiful scene on a hillside, funny and unexpectedly touching, in which Trixie pleads with Addie for a brief shot at happiness. Kahn’s genius is evident from the way she segues from disingenuously coaxing Addie (“How’d you like a coloring book? Would you like that? You like Mickey the Mouse?”) to, after tripping and falling, shrieking, “Oh, son of a bitch!” and it was probably that sequence that got her a “Best Supporting Actress” Academy Award nomination.

She might have won had she not been put in competition, foolishly, with Tatum O’Neal. Since O’Neal is in almost every scene of the picture, and at least as much of it as her father, I don’t know what she can be thought to be supporting, other than the movie as a whole; the novel wasn’t, after all, called Moses Pray. I had somehow misremembered what Bogdanovich and others had said about her performance and had it in my head that it was pulled out of her by her director and patched together by the movie’s editor, Verna Fields. This appears to be far from the case. She had, like Johnson, never acted before, and while certainly Bogdanovich had to work especially delicately with his 8-year old star, she was required to do too much, in too many of his trademark long, unbroken takes, for her performance to have been manufactured. In another of Sargent’s great scenes which have no antecedents in Brown’s novel, she and her father argue for two minutes while driving down a flat Midwestern road,  filmed by Bogdanovich without a cut and during which the junior O’Neal must remember not only a complex dialogue sequence but a great deal of business involving a map and a cigar box while remaining in character and fluctuating between angrily sullen and sweetly agreeable. That’s a set of directions even accomplished actors would have difficulty pulling off; for a child her age, and without camera experience, it’s astonishing.

Paper Moon - Tatum and Ryan O'Neal

This isn’t the only sequence in which Tatum O’Neal exhibits almost preternatural range, but it’s perhaps the most illustrative. She’s especially endearing when she smiles — which Addie doesn’t, often. And why should she? Raised by a single mother, who is taken from her too soon, she’s saddled with a man who, while he might be her father, is anxious to dump her as quickly as he can, but no so anxious he doesn’t make some fast cash on her first. That two hundred dollars becomes the crux of the action in Paper Moon, as Moze first tries to pay the kid off and then realizes without admitting it aloud that they make a good team. (In Brown’s book, Long Boy is a much shrewder character, sending his money off to a bank account, but this might have made his movie counterpart seem both too slick and too well-heeled.)  Tatum O’Neal has some of the quickness and ingenuity that marked Jackie Coogan’s performance in The Kid, and there’s a slight resemblance, especially in Addie’s boyish haircut. (Even her husky voice is one you might expect to come from the mouth of a little boy.) There’s a lovely scene in which she rises from bed, takes her treasure-box into the bathroom and poses in the mirror like her deceased mother that is a small marvel. Yes, Bogdanovich was off-camera, telling her what to do, but there’s doing, and doing well, and that makes all the difference.*

I vividly remember how, in the ’70s and early ’80s, any picture shot in black-and-white was deemed “arty” or “pretentious,” and that Paper Moon was likewise traduced. This is, and was, utter codswallop. You can film anything you like in monochrome. You don’t have to have a specific artistic-symbolic reason. For Bogdanovich, the 1930s setting simply demanded it. And while I would never go as far as his friend Orson Welles, who claimed that no great acting performance had ever been given in color, I’ve never been especially enraptured by color film, nor seen any great need for it, outside of travelogue and spectacle. Maybe it helps to have been born and grown up in a transitional period when television and movies were moving from black-and-white to full-time color, and having never in one’s own family enjoyed a color television set; I didn’t have one of my own until I was nearly 30. But whatever the case, color seems important to me only for big, splashy musical numbers or pictures like Around the World in 80 Days, and the black-and-white palette (which is indeed a palette) seems to me far richer and more expressive, especially for drama and for movies set in the recent past.

László Kovács was such a wizard with light and shadow that he was able to produce glorious images in black, white and gray and deep-focus. (The director’s estranged wife, Polly Platt, did the superb production and costume design.) I disagree with Welles and Bogdanovich that the eye sees that way — you’ve only to consciously notice how you perceive foreground and background to know it doesn’t — but deep-focus not only gives the scenes texture and the objects in them contrast but allows for subtle juxtapositions, such as the way a forlorn Addie, glimpsed behind Moze, is contrasted in a reverse-angle shot of a train station agent by the two children happily playing in the yard behind him. The director’s penchant for long, complex scenes played in full, always satisfying, is given free reign in Paper Moon, and seeing them today is especially poignant because while few filmmakers refrained from a lot of cutting in the ’70s, almost no one does now. These sequences, which never call attention to themselves, are usually not noticed, especially by image-junkies who need speed and rapid-eye-movement editing to get their cinema fix. For Bogdanovich, even a 360 degree panning shot, during a highway chase, feels elegant and doesn’t call attention to itself. (Although I gather he complained that no one noticed. If you want the critics to see that sort of thing, you have to be one hell of a lot more obvious in the way you achieve it. Study Scorsese if you seek to learn Elevation to the Pantheon of Cineastes in 10 Easy Lessons.)†

Paper Moon - Tatum O'Neal, PJ Johnson

O’Neal and P. J. Johnson

Ryan O’Neal clearly learned a great deal about comedy from starring in What’s Up, Doc? for Bogdanovich. He’s cool and polished here, and not above showing us that Moze is not quite as smooth as he thinks he is. The mustache the actor sports, and his short period hair, also remove some of his prettiness,  and his frequent comic contretemps with his real-life daughter are among the picture’s high spots. Among the many beautifully observed minor performances are those by Liz Ross, Yvonne Harrison, Eleanor Bogart and Dorothy Forster as widows conned by Moze and Addie, Rose-Mary Rumbley as Addie’s Aunt Billie, Dorothy Price as a garrulous and friendly old saleslady, and Dejah Moore as a pleasant but rather dim young salesgirl bilked by Addie out of a $20 Bill. As with many “road” movies, the ending of Paper Moon is bittersweet, and you may be forgiven for feeling wistful when Addie forsakes the obvious love and comfort she’d get from staying in her aunt’s home for the dubious charms of life on the road as a grifter with her possible father. But could Addie ever really be content with so sedate an existence after the excitement and fun of doing business with Moze?

Paper Moon - Tatum O'Neal with moon

The movie’s title was suggested to Bogdanovich by the great 1932 Harold Arlen/”Yip” Harburg song (Say, it’s only a paper moon/ Sailing over a cardboard sea…)‡ he was considering for the picture’s diagetic background score of period recordings. The filmmaker instinctively understood, just from the title, how beautifully that paean to carnival make-believe fit the picture’s con-artist milieu. (Welles said the idea was so good Bogdanovich ought to forget making the movie and just release the title.) Meeting resistance to the title change from Paramount, the director got Sargent to write an appropriate moment involving a paper moon to their preexisting carnival scene, which also had the felicitous advantage of providing a lovely moment at the picture’s climax showing how much Moze and Addie mean to each other, without them saying so. The song also inspired the movie’s famous poster image. Of course, in the movie, the poignancy of Addie’s paper moon photo is that Moze is too busy ogling girls at a peep-show to sit with her. But that too has resonance; one of the emotions Moze must surely be feeling when he finally looks at it is regret.


*We live in such a weirdly Puritanical age just now that should any filmmaker today dare show a little girl in her underwear he’d doubtless be condemned as a pornographer, and worse. And if he got his child star to smoke organic cigarettes on cue…

†I don’t know whether Bogdanovich planned it, or if it was simply an unexpected gesture by his star, but there’s a fast moment when Ryan O’Neal slams on the brakes at a service station and both Tatum and P. J. Johnson bounce out of their seats that is absolutely hilarious. If Paper Moon was a slapstick comedy, they’d both have gone flying out of the car. But I don’t know that it would have been any funnier that way than it is.

‡Although credited to Arlen, Harburg and Billy Rose, “Paper Moon” was written by Arlen and Harburg for the flop Ben Hecht and Gene Fowler play The Great Magoo, which Rose produced. It was customary in those days for producers to claim song-writing credit they hadn’t earned, and Rose was one of the era’s biggest customers.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Impropriety: “What’s Up, Doc?” (1972)

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By Scott Ross

Eunice: Don’t you know the meaning of propriety?
Judy: Propriety; noun: conformity to established standards of behavior or manner, suitability, rightness, or justice. See “etiquette.”
— Madeline Kahn to Barbra Streisand (and vice-versa) in What’s Up, Doc?

I’m not sure what astonishes me more: That it has been 48 years since I saw this modern “screwball comedy” on its initial release, or that it is still so charming, and so very, very funny, nearly a half-century later.

Having scored an unexpected success with the black-and-white period drama The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich wanted a change of pace: Something like Bringing Up Baby, with a heroine who makes life difficult for a stuffy but handsome academic. He “stole” (his words) the idea of a lost collection — igneous rocks here in place of Baby‘s dinosaur bones — a bespectacled professor, his even stuffier fiancée, a ripped jacket, a comic chase and, working with David Newman Robert Benton, added a musicologist’s convention in San Francisco and three identical plaid overnight bags. (Buck Henry, doing the final rewrite, came up with a fourth bag, its contents suggested by the recently released and published Pentagon Papers.) The result was the director’s second of three consecutive hits — Paper Moon was to follow — and a comedy that had my 11-year old self laughing so long and so hard he, quite literally, nearly fell out of his theatre seat.

What's Up, Doc - Streisand as Judy (resized and cropped)

What’s Up, Doc? was also my first exposure as a moviegoer, or watcher, to Barbra Streisand, and I was captivated by her poise, her fast Brooklynite line-readings and Yiddish inflections (“Eunice? That’s a person named Eunice?”), her comic timing, her inimitable singing voice (heard at the beginning and the end and in a brief sequence during the third act), her sharp fashion sense (that cunning little cap), her big expressive eyes, her long sandy-colored hair and, yes, even her looks, which my mother corrected my pronouncement by calling “striking” but which seemed to me then (and seem to me still) strangely beautiful.

And Mom was shocked when I came out seven years later…

Seeing What’s Up, Doc? again, on the beautifully rendered Blu-ray edition, I’m struck by what I now apprehend as Bogdanovich’s recurrent directorial signatures: The long takes, usually done in full and often requiring complex movement, not by a hack’s camera as is now so often the case, but by the actors; the eschewing of a background score; the crispness of the images (the director of photography was the splendid László Kovács) and the editing (Verna Fields); the always apposite production design (Polly Platt — note that Ryan O’Neal’s tie is of the same plaid pattern as the overnight bags); and the wit, both verbal (“Don’t you dare strike that brave, unbalanced woman!”) and visual: When Sorrell Booke chased Mabel Albertson down a hotel hallway with the intention of tripping her, I remember being doubled over with laughter; when, later, the pair was glimpsed, struggling on the carpet, Alberton fastening her teeth onto Booke’s leg, I found myself gasping for air. The set up was absolutely perfect, and the timing could not be improved upon. Once we’d seen her hit the floor like Buster Keaton that first time, we knew what was coming, and when it happened it was riotously, blissfully funny. The picture also employed so many stuntmen, in so many varied roles, that Bogdanovich insisted they all get a credit during the end title sequence, the first time to his knowledge it had ever been done.* Streisand herself almost qualifies; she put herself in danger, twice, for Bogdanovich in the streets of San Francisco.

What's Up, Doc - Albertson and BookeThat’s not to mention the marvelous supporting cast: Kenneth Mars as a comic stand-in for the critic John Simon; Austin Pendleton as the toothsome head of a philanthropic foundation; Albertson as the rich old lady with a penchant for hot-pants and young men; Phil Roth as a harried Federal agent; Michael Murphy, his temples touched with gray, presumably to make him more resemble Daniel Ellsberg, as… well… essentially, Daniel Ellsberg; Booke as the larcenous hotel detective; Graham Jarvis as a prototypically annoying bailiff; John Hillerman as a preternaturally unflappable hotel manager; and Liam Dunn, until then a casting director, as the San Francisco judge attempting to hold onto his nerves and his sanity, both hanging by the thinnest of threads. (He also gets one of the biggest laughs in the picture with only two, perfectly spaced, words.) If you look quickly you’ll also spot Randy Quaid and John Byner as convention delegates, M. Emmet Walsh as a cop, and, if your eyes are sharper than mine, Christa Lang (Samuel Fuller’s wife) as Quaid’s wife.

 

What's Up, Doc - Madeline Kahn

The movie’s greatest casting coup, however, was Bogdanovich’s introducing to the screen Madeline Kahn as Eunice, Ryan O’Neal’s impossible bride-to-be. Kahn is not only astonishingly funny in herself, especially in the small sounds of confusion and fear she makes under her breath but, as an attractive young actress new to movies, rather brave in allowing the filmmakers to make her as physically (on top of personally) unappealing as possible. Certainly Kahn was better cast than Ryan O’Neal in the Cary Grant role. I’ve never thought O’Neal was bad as Howard Bannister, but comedy is not among his strengths, or in any case was not in 1972. (He was much better suited to Moses Pray in Paper Moon the following year; the experience of What’s Up, Doc? doubtless taught him a great deal about comic performance.) O’Neal, previously the masculine heart-throb of Love Story, was almost too conventionally beautiful for a comedic role, especially of the absent-minded professor type. Cary Grant was devastatingly handsome too, and sexy as hell. But Grant was somehow able to look convincingly obtuse and his comic frustration had a kick, especially when he whinnied like an outraged nag. O’Neal enjoyed far less experience with comedy than Grant had by that point in his career (none, in fact) and fewer ideas of how to make the farce work for him. He is good at looking dreamy and distracted, however, and effective in expressing a certain comic bewilderment; there is a very funny moment when he turns to the camera and seems to be asking us why this nightmare is happening to him.

What's Up, Doc - Streisand and O'Neal

What’s Up, Doc? is, in its way, a comedy of castration. Howard is a kind of handsome male frump, guided via the metaphorical ring through his nose by an officious termagant, and further tormented by Streisand’s anarchic Judy Maxwell. Although the latter loosens him up, as Katharine Hepburn does to Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, she, like Eunice, is pushing him this way and that, if only in opposition to their manipulations. Still, the imagine of him in 10 or 20 years as Eunice’s completely emasculated spouse is so terrible a notion that he, like the audience, has to be relieved when Judy collars him at last. (That Eunice fastens on to Austin Pendleton’s Larrabee so quickly suggests she has an eye for soft, pliable men no less acute than Judy’s.)

But that’s an avenue of inquiry almost as academic as whether Howard Bannister’s igneous rocks can make music, and nearly as governed by propriety. Thankfully, What’s Up, Doc? itself is gloriously improper.

What's Up, Doc - O'Neal, Bogdanovich, Streisand resized

Bogdanovich, himself movie-star handsome, with his stars.

*In the later Disney comedy Hot Lead and Cold Feet (1978) the stunt crew got a similar credit during the main titles.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

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

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

By Scott Ross

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Cabaret - Wilkommen (Joel Grey)

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

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

Company - Being Alive

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

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

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

Follies - Too Many Mornings embrace

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

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

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


Send in the Clowns

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

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

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

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“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.

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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.

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

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

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


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

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

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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.

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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

Neither rotten, nor wonderfully brave: “The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother” (1975)

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By Scott Ross

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For reasons that no longer matter (my mother had grounded me, okay?) and even though I had the dialogue soundtrack in my small but growing LP collection, I managed to miss Young Frankenstein when it opened in 1974. I saw, it, finally, a couple of years after, at a late show to which I was taken by my sister and her fiancée, a screening memorably marred by the movie-long ululations of some insufferable fool who apparently also had the album and who, as if Mel Brooks’ movie was a Rocky Horror Picture Show avant le lettre, shouted out the punchlines before the actors on the screen could. Why he wasn’t beaten up, or at the very least forcibly gagged, during the show remains one of life’s eternal mysteries. In any case, I did know Gene Wilder, from the ill-fated 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which I saw at the age of 10, from a television airing of the somewhat logy but intermittently hilarious 1970 spoof Start the Revolution without Me, and from another dialogue soundtrack of a movie I hadn’t seen, The Producers. Although I could not have articulated then quite what it was that so appealed to me about Wilder, the boy I was would surely have nodded in complete agreement had he encountered Pauline Kael’s contemporary comments concerning that inspired comedian.

Reviewing Revolution Kael noted: “Wilder has a fantastic shtick. He builds up a hysterical rage about nothing at all, upon an imaginary provocation, and it’s terribly funny. It’s the sort of thing you wouldn’t expect to work more than once, but it works each time and you begin to wait for it and hope for it — his self-generated neurasthenic rage is a parody of all the obscene bad temper in the world.” Assaying Young Frankenstein four years later, Kael again returned to this theme, which was so much a part of Wilder’s unique comic persona: “It’s easy to imagine him as a frizzy-haired fiddler-clown in a college production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, until he slides over into that hysteria which is his dazzling specialty. As a hysteric, he’s funnier even than Peter Sellers. For Sellers, hysteria is just one more weapon in his comic arsenal — his hysteria mocks hysteria — but Wilder’s hysteria seems perfectly natural. You never question what’s driving him to it; his fits are lucid and total. They take him into a different dimension — he delivers what Harpo promised.”

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If you think of him intoning Leslie Bricusse’s mad doggerel with increasing — yes — hysteria on that boat trip through psychedelica in Willy Wonka, or screaming gynecological imprecations at the innards of a row of baked chickens in everything you always wanted to know about sex, or at his most panic-stricken in the early scenes of The Producers (“I’m in pain! And I’m wet! And I’m still hysterical!”) you know precisely what Kael meant. And it’s a sustaining shtick; it goes with his slightly popped blue eyes and those unruly shocks of curly blonde hair. You wait for him to explode into hysteria just as you anticipate his disbelieving “Son of a bitch!” every time he’s thrown off the train in Silver Streak. It works more than once; it works every time.

Having deprived myself of Young Frankenstein, which he co-wrote, I was even more determined, at the end of 1975, to see Wilder’s debut as both screenwriter and director. I remember laughing a great deal at The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother then, more than I did on seeing it again recently, but what stayed with me were less the big set-ups that are often only modestly successful and more the odd curlicues that give it flavor: The wanton use of song and dance, exemplified by the delicious music-hall parody “The Kangaroo Hop” which Wilder performs with Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman and in which he is all jointless hips and boneless feet; Dom DeLuise’s fruity, vaudeville ice-cream seller Italianate line readings; Marty Feldman’s distinctive orbs that shoot off in separate directions and his big, ready, close-mouthed smile; Leo McKern’s peerless delight, as a plummy Moriarty, in sending up the sorts of villain roles to which he was all too often consigned before Rumpole saved him; the way, after John Le Mesurier utters an insupportable faux pas to Queen Victoria and a document flies out of his hand, he then emits a Brooksian “Woof!” (much funnier than the sovereign’s muttered “Shit!” with which the scene ends); and Albert Finney’s amusing cameo as a member of the audience at an appalling English-language version of Un ballo in maschera and asking, in an aside to us, “Is this rotten, or wonderfully brave?” (It’s rotten.)

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Albert Finney’s cameo.

The Sherlockian parody itself is often droll, and certainly erudite. Feldman’s Scotland Yard sergeant is called Orville Stanley Sacker, a name close to Ormond Sacker, the one Conan Doyle initially gave to John Watson. Wilder’s insanely jealous (and apparently Jewish) brother to Sherlock, Sigerson, also recalls an alias under which Holmes himself went in “The Adventure of the Empty House,” one used by Nicholas Meyer in an equally playful context at the end of his Holmes pastiche The Seven Per Cent Solution. Kahn’s character is named after the Victorian singer Jenny Hill, and initially attempts to pass herself off as one Bessie Bellwood (“Won’t you come in… Miss Liar!”), another contemporary songbird. Indeed, the very title of the movie is in keeping with Doyle’s — or, if you prefer, Watson’s — method of naming his Holmes stories. If the screenplay itself is, like Blazing Saddles, rather more scattershot in total effect than the well-integrated Young Frankenstein and The Producers, it’s still a very respectable first solo effort, and certainly more intelligent than the typical American comedy then… and the depressing current norm today.

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Marty Feldman as Orville Sacker.

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Douglas Wilmer’s Sherlock Holmes alerts Throley Walters’ Watson to the presence outside their 221-B Baker Street digs.

Partaking of Wilder’s movie now is a bittersweet event. Kahn, Feldman, McKern and DeLuise are gone now, not to mention the wonderful Roy Kinnear, who contributes one of his droll turns as Moriarty’s henchman, while Wilder himself is older, and less active, although he has found a third career as a novel writer and memoirist. Brooks’ longtime musical amanuensis John Morris, who contributed the spirited underscore (and the deliciously fulsome melodies to Wilder’s song parody lyrics) is in his 80s now, and retired, as apparently is the great British production designer Terence Marsh, whose work here gives the movie much of its period authenticity and satirical wit. As with so much in American culture since the ’70s and early ’80s, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother seems the product of an entirely different country.

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Caught in murderous impulse McKern’s Moriarty remarks, “You’ve got a lovely vase.” To which DeLuise pinches the professor’s cheek and ripostes, “And you got a lovely vace!”

Although the climax of the movie is a bit like an undernourished romantic dream from which the fizz was unaccountably let out, the deliberately bad opera libretto is of the type that makes you smile rather than laugh out loud, and the enterprise as a whole is curiously insubstantial, Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother still holds undeniable pleasure.

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Feldman’s Orville Sacker as a supernumerary in the opera sequence. Those wigs don’t do much for either of them.

The single most charming sequence in the movie is the one in which, having extricated themselves from a tiny room with a buzz saw careening down its center, Wilder and Feldman cause a shocked sensation in the ballroom to which they escape as they slowly realize the blade has sheared away the seats of their fancy dress suits. I could have done without the flaming bandleader simpering his approval at the pairs’ exposed backsides, but the way in which Wilder conceived the gag, his acutely comic execution of it, and the delicious sang-froid with which the two comedians meet the challenge, places the scene as among the most surprising and delightful of any shot in the past 40 years. (And, anent that faggy conductor, you have to admit that Wilder did have a cute tush.)

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Feldman and Wilder in the movie’s most charming sequence. Wilder had a cute tushy.

It’s hard to imagine Woody Allen coming up with this, or even Mel Brooks, and certainly neither would have given the moment its air of sweetly inevitable innocence. Perhaps, more than his comic bluster, that very guilelessness is the reason so many of us responded to Gene Wilder as an earlier generation took to Harpo Marx, and why his essential decency belongs to another century.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Nixon (1995)

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By Scott Ross

JFK made an almost infinitely greater amount of money and received far more press, but Nixon is, to my eyes and ears, Oliver Stone’s masterpiece: A sharp, sprawling, shockingly fulsome character portrait of Shakespearean depth and tragic overtone. Stone and his co-scenarists, Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, offer a remarkably supple and surprisingly sympathetic characterization of the 20th century’s American Richard III, evoking a strange pity even in those, like this writer, who despise our 38th President in nearly every way. Stone and his collaborators are abetted enormously by the central performance by Anthony Hopkins, which is remarkable on any number of levels, not the least of which is his intelligent eschewing of either direct imitation or prosthetics. Joan Allen gives a transcendent performance as Pat Nixon, and Mary Steenburgen’s steely presence as Nixon’s immovable mother Hannah gives you a stunning understanding of just how searing it must have been to the man’s psyche to have that women — and whom he repeatedly, and one feels, reflexively and guiltily, referred to as “a saint” — for a mother. The supporting cast is uniformly splendid: David Hyde Pierce as John Dean, Paul Sorvino as Kissinger, Madeline Kahn as Martha Mitchell, Ed Harris as E. Howard Hunt, Bob Hoskins as J. Edgar Hoover, and especially James Woods as H.R. Haldeman. Powers Boothe, E.G. Marshall, David Paymer, the late J.T. Walsh, Brian Bedford, Tony Goldwyn, Edward Herrmann, Fyvush Finkel, Larry Hagman, John Cunningham, George Plimpton and James Karen also appear.

John Williams wrote a spectacularly successful score, and the hyper-kinetic editing is by Brian Berdan and Hank Corwin. The DVD “Director’s Cut” is worth watching for a chilling sequence, unfortunately deleted from the theatrical release, between Nixon and Sam Waterson as the then-CIA director Richard Helms that makes all too clear that our Presidents serve at the pleasure of the Shadow Government and not, as is so often assumed, vice-versa. The only embarrassing moments are those concerning Hoskins’ Hoover, all too winkingly informed by Stone’s Monday morning political quarterbacking; if you know anything about Hoover’s circumspection, you can only roll your eyes as he cruises Marine guards at Tricia Nixon’s wedding.

The box-office failure of a picture as intelligent and impassioned as Nixon brings into broad relief the difficulty of — and Hollywood’s sadly justifiable resistance to — creating smart, rigorous political movies. Americans do not like their history unless it is burnished by celebratory whitewashing, but only a fool, or a rank hypocrite, would subject Richard Milhous Nixon to cinematic hagiography.


Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross