Thursday, February 28, 2008

Showbiz A La Carte: Outtakes and Outbursts

Rock on, if that’s the best you can do, PBS. I am tried of tired old rock and rollers wailing away for endless PBS pledge drives. Wasn’t this whole public tv gig supposed to be about education? Oh, that’s right, I need to get smart on the best guitar twangers ... If our publicly funded networks can’t survive without the Beach Boys, maybe it’s time to turn off the lights and let the cable stations pick up what deserves to go on, like old rock and roll groups, if that’s what the public really wants to go on. What I dont want to go on is Digging for the Truth without Josh Bernstein.

Shame on you, History Channel! Josh was one compelling teacher when he hosted Digging, so why did you let him slip away? Whoever took over looked like another clone cable host. I will not watch the show until professor Josh returns ...

Broadway’s fresh dead draw big grateful crowds at going-away tributes in Times Square Theatres ... Admission is free, if you can get in (lines are long) to bid farewell to the likes of Jerry Orbach and Robert Merrill. Class act, NY ... And while we are walking the Great White Way, South Pacific gets ready for it’s April return, with its acclaimed director, Bartlett Sher, telling the NYT that to really succeed, the revival needs to be even better than the original. Without Mary Martin, that’s a tall order and I wish them well, and I have remarkable faith in Sher, for he staged the perfectly rendered Light in the Plaza ... Another reason to jump aboard Damtrak for a May trip back there ...

Back to Josh Bernstein --- Okay, I’m still fuming over his absence from Digging, for he made so interesting the exploration of ancient sites and lost civilizations. Reminds me that once upon a semester at Santa Rosa Junior College, a gifted biology instructor of rare enthusiasm made lab 1A so engaging, I of all people (I hate science and math) earned an A grade, nearly top of the class. Never again. I nearly flunked out of Astronomy. Don’t give me blood and guts, World, give me poetry and circus, ballet and big top and even Idol ...

Starring Simon Cowell, who else but?. It’s really all about him, isn’t it? We wait for that celebrated hated tongue to rattle like a snake. What will HE say. His cohorts on the panel are mere luke warm up acts for Simon Says. Idling away another Idol hour the other night, I haven’t a clue what drives these judges to their oddball judgements. A country and western guy (and I don’t much fancy c&w) struck me as perhaps the most authentic; not so the judges. They gotta keep us on edge, off guard and amazingly surprised. Shame on their professional stupidity.

Music, Even if You Don’t please: An Idea, Cirque du Soleil: Since you are very French and into serious scoring, why not include the strains of your master composers, like Ravel and Debussy? On your fan website, I notice one guy who says he mainly goes to your shows, even if he doesn’t like them, because of the music, so how about giving us the Greats? ... Heck, if you can get Bartok or Stravinsky into your fluffy dull Corteo, I might go back ...

Whatever Happened to Craig Killborn? He hosted a classy late night show, so promising, then he walked away, and even Google tells me little about what Mr. Exit is up to since he gave showbiz the finger. ... You retire at your own peril. My all-time favorite, Jack Paar, left the Tonight Show after only five years, and later tried for a comeback that is rarely mentioned in tv docs or bios (so many sacred cows get sacred protection). That comeback fizzled fast....

Monster Cinema Reigns, and I’ve had my fill for a while of diabolical barbers, viciously anti-human oil men, and strange psychotics who slit throats on a mystic whim down there where Mexico escapes into the US with drugs, hookers, farm hands and circus roustabouts...... Even the young pregnant woman in Juno, a worthy film dramatizing the profound power of motherhood to modern women, is so pretentiously hip and full of herself, I could hardly bear some of her more cynical syntax. Does a 16 year old in this day and age really talk like a jaded feminist in her 30s whom I would imagine finding in a woman’s bar? ...

And whatever happened to the great trapeze hero Miguel Vasquez? End ringing it here, are you just dying for a new tv circus celebrity show in the works? Circus of the Stars turned circus art into drek. So here comes another assault ...I still can’t shake the mediocre image of David Nelson posing as a flyer. Sure, anybody can do it, gracelessly. Yes, as in Idol, anybody can be a very accomplished amateur.

Shame on you, History Channel (or did I already say that). Blame it on the social buzz at L’Amyx, where I’m pounding out this mediocre rant. Or on the dizzy turbulence of Hojicha, the brew I daringlgy selected over my usual, more serene rice tea. Oh, yes, did anybody see the Academy Awards, and is it over yet?. I HATE awards shows that go on over an hour ... maybe they remind me of those endless PBS pledge breaks. Or movies that should wrap up in two rather than 3 hours. Like my friend Liz here in Oakland says, “They make them by the ton these days.” And still, endings elude them. No Country has no ending, it just suddenly ends in the middle of nowhere. Aristotle, who invented dramatic structure, would be outraged ...

And I better end this at the two ton mark. You see, I still have more tea to drink. Killing time can be hazardous to your prose, assuming you have any.....I learned that back in my Ovaltine phase...Blame it on my Mom... No, make that the History Channel...

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Mass Performer Walkouts at Cirque du Soleil?

On the Cirque du Soleil fan website, they are talking about an ominous number of performers or musicians who have walked or are planning to — from Kooza, now playing in Northern California to rave notices. (I’ve reviewed it elsewhere on this blog.) Among the names: Jason Berrent (who played the trickster), Crystel Bujold, Theresa Bailey, Chris Bailey, Elodi Dufuo and Alexi Shirin. Some of these names do not even appear in the program I purchased at the S.F. date, which suggests a volatile turnover, does it not? And, if so, what a surprise that is.

“Why is everyone leaving this tour” headlines a posting by Globasf, an usher. “I’ve heard many more plan to be leaving shortly. Quite a shame. Are people not happy?”

Another contributor, Parris, opines, “I can imagine the show being stressful on the artists because the show is still developing. It will be a while before it can run itself. Not saying that is why the artists are leaving but it may be part of the reason.”

Very strange to an outsider, for I had thought these performers were nailed, sworn and canonized to long-term contracts. But Cirque is such a closely guarded organization shrouded in perhaps more mystery than it sends out into its atmospheric tents.

Very strange, indeed. Here is the website. You might find this issue or you might not. It’s a Cirque thing.

http://www.cirquetribune.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=5508&view=previous&sid=0144b9aa e33040c57008455b14f4c310

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Another Season, Another Chance ..


Circus tents should spring forth in Spring. When early sunshine awakens, so too the ring stars of today and tomorrow and in-between, fresh and rehearsed and ready to take on America ... Kelly-Miller and New Cole, Carson & Barnes and a few others still tour the old fashioned way, spring to fall — although, without the guest roustabouts from south of the border, held up in crippling legislation against the temp work visas they and circuses depend on, the future is in doubt ... Ringling’s trains, pre-Pittsburgh labor strikes (lest we forget), were about this time steaming and whistling up for the long haul to “The Garden.” And a host of dazzling performers from across the ocean were walking through new production numbers out in the Florida sun. John Murray Anderson at the mike, Art Concello somewhere about, John Ringling North slumbering away in his Jomar, or suited up in blue, a gleaming smile of curiosity on his face, to maybe take a look-see at the new acts and parades, especially the costumes. How he loved those Miles White designs... Tourists from sea to shining sea angling for a glimpse of Brunn or Alzana or Berosini, for a taste of the next Greatest Show on Earth ... Artistry from the Old World; Spectacle and innovation from the New.

A touch of Ringling magic has moved to a town called Hugo. Today, if lucky, you might spot John Ringling North II gearing up his staff for the second Kelly-Miller season operated by a real Ringling ... And from an anonymous source comes a prediction that what’s about to depart Hugo would delight the late Cliff Vargas: “All the pieces are there” is a promise that makes me wish I owned my own private jet, so I could swoop down and take in the grand opening on March 15 ... Jim Royal, by the way, who does the Concello thing for North II, before that served a number of seasons as production unit manager for Big Apple. Among the editions he supervised was Picturesque, a show I found quite wonderful (at least 3-1/2 stars wonderful). Jim reflects on the modern era: “It always seemed to me that the themes of the show never overwhelmed the performance. BAC never got too ‘high brow.’ Picturesque had many artistic references that some of our audience members appreciated. For those who didn’t catch them, that didn’t intrude on their enjoyment of the show.” Royal gave the climactic teeterboard Kovgars, who flew fast and last on the bill, the Royal attention they well deserved, heading for the main tent “damn near every show just to catch their act.” Great taste, Jim ...

...The young and the older join forces when spring awakens canvas tents and sends veteran elephants into shrieks of trouping delight. (Okay, I’m trusting John Pugh on that latter claim, for once he told me about his pachyderms trumpeting lyrical over the sight of a lot they hadn’t played on in a while.) We need those young boys and girls with spring-like enthusiasm to guarantee future seasons. And, luckily, they keep getting the bug. He’s only 18-years old and barely out of high school, but contortionist Logan Jacot landed a job on Lewis and Clark, and just close to reporting for spring work, he got detained in a car accident that broke his leg in three places and collapsed a lung. This ambitious young trouper has a great rebounding attitude, already facing rehab and hoping to rejoin the show in a couple of months. Since I had mentioned Logan in a recent post, he happened upon it and was cheered by the attention: “It raised my spirits greatly and made me forget all my current fears of not being able to perform again.” I’m sure you’ll be back, kid, so take your time — you have your whole life ahead of you —and get all the contact you can with those Europeans. Bask in their advice and aura, for they can teach you things that you may never learn from a school. Tuition free, too. Heck, you are already a trouper, having performed, I see, in your 17th year on the Zoppe Family Circus. ...

And Johnny Pugh continues to operate his New Cole despite the same old floating rumors that’s he close to selling. He’s been close for, what, 20 years? And Barbara Byrd, we presume, is fearlessly prepping for her trek into the heart of hostility and pretension that awaits her in the city of San Francisco ... Courage is a fact of life along the sawdust trail. Ah yes, the challenge of canvas separates the showman from the dreamer. And the beat of the big top goes on — even here at a Starbucks, where I am typing out this post and listening to the great Sinatra, just having launched into that classic of classics, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” So does the big top, Frank. Promise, this is real journalism in real time. At Starbucks? Maybe they knew I was coming...


[Photos: Above, director Richard Barstow, left, with Michael Burke and John Ringling North during Sarasota rehearsals, 1956--costumes designed that season by French artist Vertes; Logan Jacot in The Time Reporter, photo by Jim Cummings]

Monday, February 18, 2008

Big Top Bits: Cirque Turmoil to Byrd’s Big Journey West ...

We’re off on a Cirque thing, courtesy of 18-year-old Logan Jacot, new age contortionist from Ohio with a punk attitude who calls Gunther Gebel Williams his hero and who posts a boxed message that reads “Peta Kills Animals.” Logan just happened to have picked up a copy of my book, Fall of the Big Top, and liked it enough (thank you, Logan) to talk — no, make that chat it up to his cohorts on a Cirque du Soleil fan website. By accident almost, I discovered Logan’s posting, and it feels neat, being able to reach a younger generation born even after Cirque was invented .... On the same website, I also discovered swirling rumors and reports about a number of Kooza performers walking out, reasons assumed to range from displeasure to disgust with the treatment of pushy superiors ...

Who’s to Blame for Cirque Discontent? I’ve always felt that the way a show treats its staff emanates from the very top. So we focus our meditation on impresario Guy Laliberte.... NEVER in the modest history of this here blog has a posting generated so much comment. Heck, four comments is big for little yours truly. Among the reactions, performers breaking contracts is nothing new — “Cirque has never been accused of overpaying anybody.” ... A more sympathetic visitor says that the artists “feel overworked, underpaid, disrespected and underappreciated. How can performers be expected to give their all under such circumstances?” Then comes this rough tough reality check from Ross Hartzell, raising indelicately the alternatives the self-departing might face: “Just wait till they find themselves outdoors in a rodeo arena with mud blowing sideways.” Ouch...

Makes Me Wonder about the Ways of Cirque du Soleil. For example, might they have, early in the run of a Corteo, an opus that left me unimpresso, beefed up the program with better acts? And what might they have been trying to do to Kooza that might have driven the cast to make final exits? Let’s face it, kids, Kooza’s first half was just good rather than great, which is what the show becomes once the power performers arrive about midway through the program — well, at the one I saw ...

About Impresarios: What separates them from all the others? My best guess is a dogged deference to art over commerce. The reason I place Cliff Vargas in the honored circle is that he, in his fleeting heyday years (the mid 80s), would have likely hawked his whole life for a passion to produce that he barely understood. Yes, he needed to go to refinement school, and after reading a piece about him and his “Vargasms” by Lane Talburt in Bandwagon, I am convinced that Mr. V., had he lived much longer, would have sooner than later crashed under a collapsing tent or runaway semi — if not into the Bermuda triangle. Why do most of us love the man? I think because he truly wanted to produce great circus.

Kenneth Feld drifted safely in the opposite direction: He tried his hand at “art” with his more than promising Kaleidoscape, then strangely walked away. Too messy a proposition. A victim, I suspect, of his own artistic cowardice. Back to demographics and marketing surveys. Back to the Disney mode, variations unlimited, which evidently makes big bucks for the fabulously successful Felds ... Speaking of which, a scare-mentioned pair who deserve more attention in history books are Louis Stern and Irving J. Polack, who in the mid ‘30s, made a pledge to turn out quality shows, and were soon the charm of the Shriners. From Ringling to Polack went so many top stars, which spoiled me rotten ...I’m still recovering from post ecstatic center-ring syndrome, having seen Francis Brunn and others of his sainted ilk in my extreme youth ... Logan, now that gave me attitude.

Earl Chapin May Gets No Respect From Bandwagon: Okay, maybe he’s not the greatest author of circus books ever, but I always thought he was a lively and very reliable source. Now Bandwagon’s managing editor, Fred D. Pfennig III has called May’s Circus From Rome to Ringling “surely the most overrated circus book ever written.” No reasons given. Why, Mr. P? Have you details, please? ... And while you are out it, how about your take on a number of my favorite others, among them, Circus Kings, This Way to The Big Show, and Bradna’s Big Top? ... And just for the populist record, I too regard I Love You Honey as the best tanbark tome I ever read ...

Another curious Bandwagon position comes from Al Stencell, recounting numerous circuses seen in Europe and giving prime credit to Bernard Paul for being the true inspiration behind Cirque du Soleil... At least Stencell states his reasons, and surely his proposition merits a merry monograph or two from somebody out there... I defer, in the meantime, to the Russians as the principal source of inspiration for the modern day phenom headquartered up there in Montreal, Florida. Excuse me, I mean Sarasota, Quebec ... In passing, Stencil mentions having witnessed clown Charlie Rivel’s last public appearance, but, drats, does not say a word about what he thought of the act that John Ringling North had tried for years in vain to book ...

If I never see another Hula Hoop, Thank you, Lord! They are talking up the hula hoop’s anniversary, and I am reminded of all the hoop “acts” that I have sat through, not a happy patron ... Only once was I magnificently impressed, thanks to Jim Judkins. On his Circus Chimera a few years back, Jim — for a moment, playing the role of impresario — hired two captivating Russians, four-star illusionist, Olga Timchenko, and her son, Dimitri, who grabbed hold of a dozen or so hula hoops and proceeded to work them as a true juggler. Now that was a turn to remember ...

Big Top Bits: in a Covington Flash: Circus World, which seems to be waking up from a long bad dream, might revive the grand parade in 2009, Hats off to new and improved exec director Stephen Freese, who has the complex on the move once again. The Ringling-Barnum Archives having been opened to the public, at last, should bring Freese Museum Director of the Year Award. And for best supporting player, I nominate self-effacing library archivist Erin Foley ... Ringling’s new edition about to hit the trail is titled “over the top” I’m hoping so. But please, without those you know whats ... Why not marbles --- or skateboards --- or perhaps a ring of anal retentive electronic junkies juggling ipods and iPhones whilst whizzing about on their iScooters?

Into a PC war zone for Barbara Byrd’s Fearless Big Top? Looks like the SF. Zoo fiasco might linger on, with more animal activists claiming terrible conditions there, even after the wall was raised sky high ... And what might they do when Carson & Barnes throws up its tents onto the Cow Palace parking lot next September? Ms. Byrd, we’re in search of the next American sawdust impresario(ess). Your resume, perhaps? I must warn you, however, not without at least a few live musicians will you qualify — even if they play iDisco.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Impresario Enters ...

Read in to read opening night notes from John Ringling North to his creative staff in 1951

Only he can silence a room. Only he can still the ego of others. The abrasive choreographer ... the overbearing set designer ... the prickly composer — they all suddenly turn silent when HE enters ... They all bow to him, for he is the ultimate arbitrator of what they will do. He is the studio mogul, the stage impresario, the big top king. The audience of audiences.

In the riveting brilliance of the British film masterpiece The Red Shoes, He is Boris Lermontov, played by Austrian actor Anton Walbrook. They all talk of him, wait for him to appear, take their cues from his wishes. Walbrook (who, in real life, broke from a circus family to pursue acting) teaches us perhaps everything there is to know about the importance of that one looming figure whose demanding vision lights the path that all of the rest must follow. Many years ago, perhaps that figure was Nate Salsbury, who produced Black America , a spectacular touring exhibition celebrating “Negro life and character,” now profiled in the current issue of Bandwagon. Maybe he was once was a young Al Ringling who lured his brothers into a legendary showbiz dynasty unrivaled in its time.

Today, he surely is Guy Laliberte, Cirque du Soleil’s founding force whose creative drive powers an operation of almost unprecedented contemporary splendor and world-wide success ...
Who else in modern times had it? I will surprise you, perhaps, by suggesting — even though he did not exactly dress for the part — that maybe Cliff Vargas had it, however crudely, however fleetingly. Maybe that is the reason why he remains so profoundly respected by, it seems, everyone under the big top

When I was not even 9-years old, I went with some kids to see The Red Shoes at the Roxie movie house in Santa Rosa, and I would remember only a cinematic image of a make-believe world anchored to selfless discipline. Those days, my mother mopped up and dusted the dance studio of one Dinah Selby, so that my sister, Kathy, could take tap lessons. There, I sometimes felt a certain magic in the air... Girls danced on pointe and, in their dedication to a difficult art, I sensed there was something more to life than baseball and Lionel train sets.

Watching The Red Shoes in recent times (the other night on TCM), I marvel at its depiction of the same world, only now I find myself even more mesmerized by the figure of the dashing and demanding Anton Walbrook, who seems so hauntingly real to me in his relentless hunger for artistic exaltation. He is not a merchant. Not a cast-couching lout. He is the producer of great performances. He is the true impresario.

In Lermontov, I can see shades of John Ringling North — the impeccably attired, elusive mogul assuming a position above it all. North must have known what an impresario can do for the circus. If his uncles gave the show the respect of a family operation, North gave it the flamboyance of one man’s superior vision. Like most entrepreneurs, he did not direct or design. More often, they inspire. Badger. Hold out. Expect. Push. Insist. Even dream, sometimes madly ...

Now at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, where at long last the long-guarded Ringling-Barnum Archives have been opened to the public, there are a couple of stunning documents written in North’s own handwriting. These two discoveries open wide a window into the emotions of a man who rarely revealed his innermost thoughts on the subject of producing. In his own handwriting, we can witness him boldly issuing notes on the 1951 show after it had just opened. There is a lot of the bluntness of a Lertmontov in them: “Sammy Grossman, arrange Veronica Martel so it will be perfection. Doug Morris, give her perfect lighting. This is a new star with a magnetic personality.”

And more, of which .. “As of today, I demand that all acts finish their numbers together and any feuds as such will engage themselves for mortal combat outside of the circus arena.” Lermontov? Walbrook?

Here is my favorite picture of the mysterious Mr. North, who strangely almost never attended any of the circuses he produced once they passed through dress rehearsal and onto opening night. So tentative, standing there all alone at the edge of the Paris opening during the European tour. Insecure about his own work? Not quite sold on the result? Holding out still for something he knows he may never achieve? Waiting, still, perhaps, for his own elusive Lermontov masterpiece?

[photos, above: Anton Walbrook in The Red Shoes; Guy Laliberte; Cliff Vargas; John Ringling North, in Business Week, October 12, 1963)

First posted February 14, 2008

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Back to Carnie Basics for Struggling Disney Park


As many know, Disney’s on-the-cheap Calif. Adventure, meant to duplicate the patronage of its next door neighbor, Disneyland, earned a rating of Fiasco+ when it opened in 2001, sometimes looking more like a “ghost town,” as reported in today’s New York Times by Brooks Barnes. How ghostly? Average annual visitors: 6 million, compared to 15 million for the sainted giant next door.

Now they are again trying to reboot the place into a turnstile-spinning success, sinking $1.1 billion over five years of upgrades. They’ve got a new ride about to premiere called Toy Story Mania. At its inception, Disney planners and thinkers took an open-minded walk around the midway at the L.A. County fair and decided to build on fundamental fun — like the dart balloon toss. Beyond that, of course, Pixar and a cast of computer geniuses have been engaged to develop a blockbuster attraction.

Disney fans are all abuzz. Maybe this time. Who was it who said, “ah, the fundamentals.” Comedian Don Rickles provides the voice for Mr. Potato’s total vocabulary of 750 words, so that he will “talk” to various patrons. Sounds like a blast.

To read all about it, grab a copy of the Times. Superb in-depth coverage of how this ride was created, step by step ... When the market speaks, super showman respond.

[New York Times photo, above, by J. Emilio Flores]

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Tea Trumps Circus at L'Amyx ...

Showbiz David, from February 9, 2008


Join me for a high-tech laugh or two here at L’Amyx Tea Bar on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland. What a trendy night. Ring my Dell! I’m feeling cooler than cool, pecking out this post on my very first laptop. Or have I again arrived just when the latest party is letting out? At the moment mine is the only laptop in the room!... Who knows, as of tonight laptops may be a thing of the past, and all because of me ... Has anybody, by the way, heard of something called a cellphone? Think I should check that one out too ..

Our servers tonight are Will and Boyi, two young guys from China with a certain natural flair for sharing favored tea enthusiasms. Will, who hails from Guangxi, champions an ominous jar of thick black leaves called Tribute Pu-Er, something that looks like it should be served out of an ash tray or wrapped in a cigar. He has tried before to sell me on his pet brew. So far I have resisted, preferring the serene contemplative sanity of Dragonwell or Japanese Rice tea to a late-night emergency room visit ...

Boyi likes Dragonwell, too, and he especially likes Tranquility Mao Feng, which has a nice lingering lilt to it. Says Boyi, raised somewhere in the Chinese countryside, “No matter how long you steep it, it’s still not bitter.”

Ah, still not bitter. That’s too easy a road for Will, who took on Tribute Pu-Er like an athlete scaling a pregnant volcano. “I don’t like it at first.” he admits, laughing over his masochistic attraction to the stuff. “Too earthy.” But Will took the challenge like a man. “Now I like it.” The ashen looking compound rewards courage with residual pleasure. “After feeling it in your mouth, feels an hour later, your mouth still feels sweet”

In fact, Pu-Er is so strong, it has a way of moving permanently into a pot and being the scent that keeps on scenting: After a time, says Will, “You don’t need to put tea leaf in pot anymore.”

All the while, I am wondering, have these guys seen any circuses in China? When I ask Will, he gives off a blank stare. "Circus, Will, you know, ah — circus?" Blank stare bordering on laughter. I try describing circus acts. I motion with my hands. Will thinks. “Not really. I see them on TV.” I remind Will that China is famous for its acrobats. “You never saw any acrobats in China?” He thinks a little more, and I wonder if that ashen tea he drinks has rebooted his memory. “Some small circus,” he answers, “only few people. They like come from small village, three or four people ... riding the one-wheel bike.” He finds it funny.

So much for a Chinese big top audience base. Strange that we know more about them over here than they do about themselves over there. Clearly, Will and Boyi both missed being turned against their will into hoop divers, so here they are in America serving hot water over imported tea leaves to people like me ...

About to leave the place after first-of-May laptop frustrations -- getting adjusted to a new keyboard and to a new spell checker that has already collapsed under the weight of my ignorance -- ah, as the song might have said, "I’ll spell my way by myself." Looking around — horror of horrors — I am still the ONLY one with a portable PC. Now, the others are reading books, pouring over notes, talking to each other face to face ... What next, checkers? Once again, I am trailing a party that closed hours ago. Just once, I vow to get the first next whatever new gizmo, just once to be first in line to the next Steve Jobs premiere ... In the meantime, let’s see, should I take a crack at Will’s favorite, or settle for the lingering sweetness of Tranquility Mao Feng? Or practice shouting out loud in public the most intimate details of my life and prepare to enter the cellphony Olympics?... Nobody wants to ring my Dell...

[originally posted 2/9/08]

Friday, February 08, 2008

Memo to the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization: How to Make South Pacific Live Again

Dear Messsrs and Messrettes Mary Rodgers, Ted Chapin,Estate Trustees, et all.

Wanting as much as any fan of the great R&H to see your upcoming revival of South Pacific succeed brilliantly, I have pondered how to make it work. While walking around Lake Merrit one morning here in Oakland, where I rent a one bedroom, I asked myself: what is the key to revival success for this soaring gem from 1949?

The answer came to me in a word: CONTEXT. You must do everything you can to take the theatregoer back to that period in American history. Here is how:

First of all, sorry to say, you you have booked your bet into the wrong house. Lincoln Center Theatre is way too modern a space. I urge you to break the lease, whatever it costs, and transfer to the quaint old Lyceum. Such a musty place, so wonderfully full of yesteryear's Broadway ghosts. Just stepping inside the place, you can almost imagine Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein lurking somewhere about.

Secondly, decorate, no, DRENCH the theatre in the imagery of the 1940s. Big band sounds upon entering. Photos of movie stars and theatre icons. Ushers dressed in the attire of the times. Purpose being to transport us back. The more we can be made to feel the era in which this melodic masterpiece was created, the better the chances are that we will connect emotionally to its central characters and themes. We've "got to be taught," yes -- all over again.

Third: Your production needs to honor the period, period. No Henry David Hwang deconstructions. No modernizing the subtext or transgenderizing the cast.

Now to the most critical challenge: Nellie Forbush. Not another sugar-dispensing Julie Andrews clone. Introduce your director to sound recordings and film footage of the late Mary Martin. Her soul was carved out of both sugar and spice. Give us a real female hick with downhome authenticity. This is the most daunting task you face.

End of Memo. Break a leg, big time...

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Some Enchanted Evening A Long Long Time Ago, They Lit Up Broadway ...


Come March, the Pulitzer prize winning musical South Pacific, created nearly 60 years ago by legendary musical theater pioneers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, will be given its first Broadway revival. Can the kings of the “golden age” do it again? More important, can the 1950s live again? During that outwardly innocent period, R&H dominated Broadway stages. Their songs were sung on radio hit parades. Their made-for-televison original, Cinderella, was seen by over 107 million viewers in 1957 (nearly twice as many as those who watched Elvis Presley shake his sexy hips on the Ed Sullivan Show). A televison tribute to their work in the fifties was broadcast on all three major television networks. Unprecedented?

As much a fan as I am of R&H, I can’t see the odds being in their favor. Times have changed (some would say progressed) so drastically since America embraced tunes about cockeyed optimists, about singing nuns and poetic cowboys breaking into music over beautiful mornings. Now on Broadway, contemporary society — more cynical and disjointed, carved out from all the social upheavals that have split the nation apart since the 1960s — offers the grist that musical theater must confront in order to stay relevant at the box office. Think Hairspray and Wicked. Think any number of Stephen Sondheim revivals — Sweeney Todd for starters?

A fan like me dreams that the younger generations will discover the magic that cast a spell over my boyhood. Dream on. When Robert Goulet toured in South Pacific less than ten years ago, at a matinee in San Francisco I was seated next to a young couple who looked as if they had wandered in on a lark. During the first half of the performance, gratefully attended by a not-young crowd, the younger woman to my left shuffled through her program in the manner of an impatient patron. No surprise when she and her date did not return after intermission. I felt a sadness, though, as if to be witnessing the demise of a theatrical force that once held audiences spellbound. No longer. The fact is, today’s hits inevitably become tomorrow’s fondly remembered chestnuts. Of course there will always be an audience for the older “golden age” musicals. But, on revival row, the likes of a Chicago or a Cabaret (both cynically in step with today) are the rare exceptions. I note that A Chorus Line in revival is not setting the box office on fire.

You almost had to have grown up when South Pacific and The King and I, Flower Drum Song and The Sound of Music first hit the boards. Had to have been young and impressionable enough for their songs to have taken up residence in your soul. I will never forget listening to Mary Martin singing “A Cockeyed Optimist” from an old radio my brother and I shared in our bedroom in Santa Rosa and being absolutely mesmerized by the lyric: “When the sky is a bright canary yellow, I forget every cloud I’ve ever seen...” Something about that moment enchanted me so that my tastes were formed for life. I am sublimely grateful.

Now in song, today’s pop icons celebrate social mayhem. White kids dig what black hip hoppers give them, and, to quote an Oscar Hammerstein lyric from The Sound of Music, “there’s no way to stop it.”

There never was. A very good friend, older, still wants me to take in a Gilbert & Sullivan. I have no interest. In fact, I fear shuffling through a program and wanting to exit at intermission. As the world grows ever more self-centered and expedient and "relationships" are being redefined in so many variant ways, the worlds of Rodgers and Hammerstein feel less relevant, less emotionally compelling. I hope that South Pacific is there when I am in New York in May. Maybe, miracle of miracles, this will be the one that stays on the boards for a very long time, not for a respectably drawn out, money-losing one-year run at best.

The best I can hope for is that The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization will refrain from another one of their lame-brain reconstructions of the sort that mangled Flower Drum Song from charming delight into labored rewrite dishonoring the source material upon which the work was originally based.

The best thing they can do is let Richard and Oscar be — on their own terms. You don’t repaint the Cystine Chapel. Don’t revise Ravel. "Who can explain it? Who can tell you why? Fools give you reasons. Wise men never try." That's more than good enough for me. So is the libretto, ground breaking in 1949. So please, keepers of the R&H legacy on the Avenue of the Americas, be wise and don't try.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Birth of New Game in San Francisco ... Showbiz David's BigTopolis Premieres at Leland Tea Company



A Night to Remember

Last thursday evening at Leland Tea Company on Bush Street during game night, friend Doug (seen here, left) and guest player Darien joined me for the very first play of my new game, BigTopolis -- battle of the big tops. Some historic firsts:

First to roll: myself. The dice added up to a ten, and that directed me to Clown Alley, out of which, by the draw or a Fortune card, I was convicted of selling moldy hot dogs on the midway, had to report to court and pay a $100 fine.

First city to be licensed by a circus owner: El Paso.

First railroad passage booked: San Francisco to Portland on the Southern Pacific.

First to loose at my own game: Myself!

First to win: A draw was declared between Darien and Doug. Just as Leland Tea was about to close, Darien, virtually bankrupt, was on the verge of a dramatic comeback. He had only one date left, in New Orleans, but several star acts in his show which boosted greatly his ticket prices. So Doug, by virtue of landing there, suddenly owed Darien a huge amount of money. The game could have gone either way.

Yes, Thanks to Will, Ryan and Curtis at Leland Tea Company, to Doug and to Darien, indeed, for a night to remember!

Friday, February 01, 2008

EARS OVER HUGO ... Sage Streaming Live ... "Big Top Brothern" in Emergency Session at Drive In ...

Showbiz David, can you hear me down there?
Down here. Yes, Sage, where are you?
I'm currently in a secret position, hiding out on the rooftop of the sonic in, and old drive-in.. 
You're kidding?
Look, Dave, tent times are tense. Down there behind a scrim around a dining table, the big top brethren are holding an emergency summit.
A SUMMIT, Sage?
Look, guy, you wanted real reporting in real time, right?
who are the big top brethren?
You don't know? The inner circle, dude, bosses and fans with tight connections. A secret society, I think. 
Then you are in Hugo?
I helicoptered in.  My friend Shishi's cousin runs a housewives detective service.
Okay, Sage, what's the meeting about?
Look, Dave, Carson & Barnes are trouping into the heart of darkness and danger next summer, where even Ringling fears to tread.  I want to offer protective services.
You're talking San Francisco?
Yeah, guy, the big top brethren are here to discuss national strategy to take back the American circus... I've got the grit to take on san francisco.
You are on a roof?
I've got some pipes and wire, I'm trying to boor through to give you a live stream of their meeting
(siren sound)
Oh, jez, is that the fuzz?  Hey Shishi down there!!! Can you hear me?  where's the ladder?   If that's the cops, SEE WHAT YOU CAN DO! LAY ON THE CHARM, BABE!  ANYTHING TO KEEP THEM OFF MY A.....
[static sounds amidst siren, phone disconnects]