Monday, June 30, 2008

And the Best Circus of 2008 Is ...

Perhaps never before has circus performance art — and by this, I am speaking the entire show as a single unit or form of creativity —been given so huge a boost as was yesterday unveiled in Bucharest, Romania. There, a ground breaking event took place when four of “the best circus companies” from Italy, Germany, Russia and Romania, as went a press release, competed for the unprecedented honor of best show.

For the record, Romania's Circus Globas somersaulted off with the Golden Lion Award; Italy's Medrano Casartelli, the Silver; Russia's Nukulin on Ice, the Bronze.

Heralded as “the first edition of the international festival of circus art,” the big top bash appears to throw the focus onto the elements of a performance. Kudos to that! For too long, in my opinion, has the flow of action in and out of a ring from start to finish been overlooked or barely understood. No longer in Bucharest, where a Big Picture focus has the chance to inspire not only a more passionate and educated patronage but an enhanced respect for the importance of artistic direction.

The Continent has now shown the will to bring off what occurs yearly in theatre, film, pop music and television. It’s about time the sawdust ring in all its fascinating aspects was so honored.

So let the big top have its own — blare of trumpets, drum rolls please — Astley Awards! Or, for short, the Aslteys. Or has somebody already thought this up? Named after Phillip Astley, credited with inventing this thing we call or did call circus, I can see an annual awards celebration handing out trophies in a number of categories, some of which would focus attention on the performance itself. Here are some proposed categories:


Best Circus of the Year
Best Direction
Best Paced Production
Best Original Scoring
Best Score Featuring Known Music
Best Lighting
Best Costumes
Best Thrill Act
Best Comedy Act
Best Ground Act
Best Ringmaster
Best Traditional Circus Program
Best Avant Garde Performance
Best Integration of Theme or Story Line
Best Mix of All Circus Elements

And if in Europe, why not (okay, please be kind and believe) the United States? We too still have some circuses. Ours might be called the Johnnys. My rationale: Both John Ringling and his nephew, John Ringling North were celebrated international talent scouts and the younger John achieved fame in elevating three-ring performance art standards

These annual Johnnys might be determined by surveys sent out from an organization such as the CFA or perhaps a periodical like Ernest Albrecht’s analytically inclined Spectacle magazine. The problem is, how do you find voters who have seen all of the circuses during the current season? No problem on Broadway or at the movies. Under the big tops spread far and wide, a big problem. Yes, I can hear some of you saying --- You Tube.

A Royal Ring Toast, Romania, to your first International Festival of Circus Art!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Romaninan Circus Review Revolution is NOW

How very interesting and truly ground breaking -- over across the Atlantic in Bucharest, they are judging not circus acts but entire circus performances! The revolutionary review festival winds up tomorrow, June 30.

We must talk more about this. Meet me at the tea tent tomorrow evening.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Ziegfeld Dream When It Dies, As It Must ... A Brilliant Movie Musical Discovery....


Lucking Out at the Movies on TV...

To have known the spotlights of fame and fortune, to have known the acclaim of a thousand raving fans seeking your favors, and then the pain of withdrawal that follows when they are no longer there — this is an experience precious few mortals face. The rest of us can only imagine how harrowing the last ride down to the final exit must be. Some marquee idols make the transition; many wither away in remorse and anger, depression and booze and suicidal solitude.

Recently on Turner Classic Movies, actually a half hour into the film, I discovered a riveting old black and white movie musical from 1941, Ziegfeld Girl. It’s lucky heroine, Sheila Regan, is a looker who lives two lives. One is that of a Ziegfeld Follies girl in the gold digging fast lane that lands her in the graces of an older man whose gifts and security she can't resist. The other life resurfaces when her stage value fades and the fellow she really loves from a Brooklyn childhood, a truck driver turned gangster, Gilbert Young, played (believe it or not) by a young Jimmy Stewart, returns. Finally, it appears, he will win his true love back. They are about to leave New York to raise ducks upstate. Yes, ducks. And yet, and yet, our fading star is hopelessly addicted to the highs of tinsel and applause.

Just one more time, Sheila wants to see what the new Ziegfeld girls look like and so she steps up to the ticket window to purchase a seat, and a ticket is handed her free by a seller who knows that Mr. Ziegfeld would never allow such a thing. While sitting alone up in the balcony watching the latest ladies sing the song she once sang — “You stepped out of a dream" — Sheila feels an uncontrollable urge to step back into one. She rises out of her seat and makes her way uneasily to a staircase, and down it she steps, as if to be stepping back down into the number itself — an eerie juxtaposition — now a part of the action in her mind. I can’t think of a single scene I have ever witnessed that dramatizes with such mesmerizing force the psyche of a once-famous stage actress clinging to a lost career. At the foot of the staircase, she collapses. And Sheila Regan is played, another great and grateful discovery for me, by none other than Lana Turner.

Against the impression made that her life is over, the studio inserted a scene to make it appear that she would live on. Preview audiences found the original ending too depressing. How I wished the director had held out. I can’t ever recall witnessing in art the lingering attachment to a lost career as it is so vividly captured by Lana Turner in this remarkable film, no matter its imperfections. Engaging story. Fabulous recreation of a Ziegfeld production number, directed by Busby Berkeley, that glorified the female body like no other. A rare vaudeville cameo by an older actor finally getting his chance to appear in the Follies and charming the audience. Judy Garland holding her own. A young Dan Daily showing a tougher persona that fame and typecasting would gradually erase out.

I was left utterly in awe.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Midweek Midway Mix ... Niche Circuses from Black to Pink

When last we met here at the Tea House of Tranquility, my fragile psyche was rattled by rumors of a Cirque du Soleil sale to a dubious Dubai syndicate (is anything in Dubai not dubious?) ... and what a flood of e-mail it drew (to me, one counts for a “flood”). And no less than from an ex-Cirque Insider (trust me), who helped launch the whole thing way back when it suddenly went from one-ring humble to multi-tent haughty. Can you blame them? Says Mr. Ex, amorally instructive, “Guy Laliberte has no real vision for the future of CDS but he has a clear vision for himself. Think about it!”

Okay. So I thought about it, and I hereby declare that producer Laliberte, by having no vision set in stone, is more creatively open to whatever new revelations might strike him or his underlings ... Which prompts me to think aloud that Sigmund Freud would have had a field day analyzing the brilliant eccentrics, such as the Mysterious Mr. Ex, who together argued, as only the French can argue, the whole Cirque thing into breath taking form. So, Mr. Laliberte, spare yourself a Dubai detour and simply keep on not knowing where you are going; for this will make your future even more surprising. And you don't even have to think about it.

Thoughtless tidbits down at the runs: Playland-Not-At-The-Beach, located in El Cerrito, north of Berkeley (where the late Don Marcks lived), brings back more memories than it has artifacts on display. Richard Tuck has done a splendid job cramming maybe too much into a claustrophobic space, from Playland games to the model circus made by Don and his father, among the assorted offerings that are viewable through narrow passageways. Miniatures of a city? Miniatures of other things? Some of it doesn’t make sense. Great atmosphere though. I must think about this. You see, I grew up across the street from San Francisco’s fabled amusement park, where my Uncle Smitty managed the Big Dipper roller coaster, my father rigged the spooky light-up devices in the dark mystery rides), and I can’t shake the Playland in my soul. I Can still hear the thunder of coaster cars through fog, the screams of dames playing to frisky sailors on leave ... Music to my crib.

Think pink in Spain. To the list of niche circuses specializing in precise market definition, add Gay Circus, which bows in Barcelona on July 25 during the Euro Games. This nicher endeavors to assist “the normalization of homosexuality.” And in case you are wondering what to think, you are promised a “dialogue between angels and devils, the eternal dispute between good and evil set now on a ring with numerous references to literature, painting, dance, sculpture, photography, and cinema.” Sounds suspiciously Montreal to me; might Spain also be bidding for the Lalibert collection? ...

Niche big tops (UniverSoul to New Pickle) offer the exciting prospect of what I would call Retro Circus. Old fashioned and low down. A little creepy. Reckless in the air, snarling on the ground. Gruff-looking characters lurking about. The bearded lady returns. Inside a ghostly old tent, windjammers toot and bang off key. Mr Cage Man hulks it up to face down rowdy lions, making a near-death exit, Clyde Beatty style. Hula hoopsters get tangled up in too many rings and are rushed out of the tent on stretchers made of pink aerial bed sheets ...

I better get out of there before I lose it. Oh, wait, one last big thing: THIS IS CIRCUS in any tent, in any context, and you don’t have to think about it. I saw it on America’s Got Talent last night -- Lil' Countrie and Page from New Orleans turning fantastic ground acrobatics, hip hop style, one of them on his head sliding across the floor! I first saw that trick (in fact, I think this Countrie is the very one I saw do it) at UniverSoul Circus — that’s the "black thing" niche tent that shuns white America ... Which is one of the Big Reasons why it’s gifted ringmaster, Calvin DuPre, quit. He wants to share his vision with a wider audience base ...

Oh, and I had so much more nonsense to articulate. We must meet here again soon. Retired Doc Bob of Baraboo, emerging at last from a soft winterly hibernation, has something to say about Louise Ringling. His niche is rich in the Al Ringling Theatre pitch ...

Think about it!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Sunday Morning, Out of the Past: Ladies of the Sawdust ... Pitch Your Tents!


It should be no surprise that more and more, women are beginning to manage and direct circuses. After all, if they can rise to the title of CEO, why not that of “Circus Queen”?

Lady #1 in my Ring of Fame: Determined, committed, dedicated, multi-talented. Unknown force behind the throne of a new circus syndicate destined too dominate the entire tent show field: Louse Ringling (above). Yes, past tense. She will stand for other unknown women down through time who no doubt have helped run shows. We can only imagine the degree of family indifference and public scorn that Louise suffered in silence for her love of Albert Ringling. Female performers were then likened to prostitutes. And we will never know how intricately important Louise Morris Ringling was to the success of the five brothers. They never once, to my knowledge, publicly honored the one women who was with and behind them from the very beginning: Bareback rider. Snake charmer. Costume maker. Her life cries out for a book that may never be possible to write for lack of adequate research materials.

Dazzling dames in spangles brought thrills, chills, glamour, mystery, and, yes, sex appeal to the golden age of big tops. My mom once told me how much she admired Lillian Leitzel. May Wirth was a superstar. So was Bird Millman and Dorothy Herbert. Wild animal trainer Mable Stark stands out starkly. Can you imagine her scaring the sneer off the sour face of Ingrid Newkirk?

On my brief stint clowning for Wallace Bros Circus, it was the smiling face of a female who represented management every week when I proudly walked up the steps of the office wagon and was handed a paycheck by Norma Cristiani

Today, leading the parade is reportedly shy Barbara Byrd of Hugo, daughter of Dory Miller, who pilots Carson & Barnes three ringer. And today on Ringling, Nicole Feld (left) is now a full fledged co-producer with her father, Kenneth. Has she made a measurable impact? Hard to say for sure — yet. Since her arrival, however, the show was first reduced to half a ring, and then re-ringed, sort of.

New Cole’s Renee Storey, vice president of administration, is out there unafraid to talk to the public about raging animal rights issues. Indeed, who better to answer the attacks of groups dominated by women, than women? Carson and Barnes’ "Taylor" made a good showing on national television defending her employer.

In the world of letters, female authors are making valuable contributions. Janet Davis received high acclaim for her book, The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top. And there is English scholar Helen Stoddart, whose Rings of Fire: Circus History and Representation offers a deft analysis of the realities of life addressed by authentic circus art.

Lastly, Katherine North, daughter of John Ringling North II who purchased the Kelly Miller Circus in 2006, is showing potential interest in being a vital part of management. So the House of Ringling, back under the big top after a forty year hiatus, may once more help define circus art in this country.

The book is open. Ladies, your turn to blow the whistle!



Originally posted June 23, 2008

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Sunday Morning Looking Back: Celebrity Circus on TV: A Big Top To Nowhwere

First published June 19, 2008 [has it been that long?]

TV Review: NBC Celebrity Circus.

Pardon my naivete, but can celebrity and bare taut flesh alone carry a television show woefully lacking in real talent? Ooops, that's right, there was that episode of Survivor that I couldn't take my eyes off of ...

Second question: What is a judge to do when there is nothing to judge? That’s the dilemma faced by three "experts" recruited to adjudicate NBC’s glitzy Celebrity Circus, in which assorted star names from sports to film pretend to be performing real circus acts. Pretend is the operative word.

How to, indeed. Do you accept veiled bribes from the producers and fake being swept away? Memorize pre-scripted reactions? Agree to be paid per adjective uttered --“fabulous!” and “absolutely fantastic!” getting you another thousand dollars each time you toss them out?

In fact, given the program's glaring shortcomings, it would appear that our panel of experts have been placed in the unwitting role of cheer leaders in order to support a desperate illusion that something worth really really watching is really really happening. I waited for the end of each plodding act to see what and how they would gush. Cheerleader-in-Chief, Olympic gymnast Mitch Gaylord, gushes the best, he really really does. Says things like “The whole package!” Hmmm, was he referring to the strange crotch catching on fire incident?

And, oh, how I wished I was sitting next to judge Louie Spence, by profession a dancer and choreographer, whose hyper reactions made me wonder if somebody had slipped into his pink lemonade a dose of Viagra. What fun it would have been driving him crazy with my contrary views, driving him to dizzier, frizzier heights of the irrational exuberance that makes him perhaps the show's most amusing asset. We might have given Celebrity Circus critical relief -- that is, were I not thrown out first during the next commercial break and sent packing to the Greyhound bus depot for a shamed exit back to Oakland.

To be reasonably fair — short of assigning scores for anatomy alone or dates promised me by the contestants — I decided to judge these eager participants against my general impression of the entry level skills competently exhibited at Circus Osario, which I saw a few weeks ago.

Only one of the judges has a circus background, and she is Aurelia Cata, an aerialist who is said to have critiqued circus festivals abroad. What irony that it should be her of all people to slight, inexplicably, by far the evening’s most, in fact, only accomplished performance — gold medal swimmer Janet Evans (left) working the “flying silks” (another precious term for bed sheets).

Really, how much can we expect from such an impractical premise? They tried it years ago, and it was probably more fun. Now it is so deadly serious. “More danger! More fear! More drama! No safety net!” And so humorless.

Asking anybody off the street to spend a month or two becoming a viable ring star is a bit of a stretch. Here are the grateful ordinals awarded each act by the judges, followed by my own less grateful marks, each preceded by an asterisk (*)

Stacy Dash (silks, labored): 9-9-9 -- *5

Arturo Sabato (hunk equilibristics, shaky, wobbly): 8-8-8 -- *4

Janet Evans (ribbons, the one act that truly engaged me -- with effort, she could make it under a real big top) : 7-8-7 -- *7

Christopher Knight (clown on fire, crotch ablaze, pointlessly bizarre): 7-7-7 -- *4

Wee Man (German wheel, pathetic): 4-6-4 -- *1-

Rachell Hunter (blue hammock, bulky, clumsy): 7-8-7 -- *3

Why have I no desire to see another episode of Celebrity Circus? Not only the shaky executions, but for a stifling air of earnestness; they try so hard for the Cirque du Soleil mystique and fall so embarrassingly short of the mark. Worse yet, none of it matters in real life, because these moonlighting celebrities have no intent of taking their new found skills anywhere — unlike the genuinely gifted singers and dancers by the dozens who make "American Idol" and its spin offs so much more enjoyable to watch. You want to see real ambitious young circus performers striving to make it? Watch America's Got Talent. Or maybe The Gong Show.

I’m really really out of this tent.

From 6.19.08

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Midweek Midway Mix ... Cirque du Soleil For Sale?

Ladies of the Sawdust, hold your engines! Just when I was about to salute our new circus queens, so thoughtfully, so thoroughly, here comes a Don Covington flash about Cirque du Soleil considering a bid from dubious Dubai suitors to sell for 2.5 billion. “No,” says the Montreal office to Daily Telegraph reports. "Many rumors and speculations result from these conversations. In this case, it is just that." Still, I felt a minor earthquake rock my battered big top soul, a sincere pang contemplating life without the Great Guy Laliberte. He is the force behind a big top movement that has fascinated, even sometimes thrilled me. ... I’ve looked forward to following his trajectory into the future, especially after his remarkably older-styled and more real Kooza. The man can change. The man is full of surprises. So why those rumors? The guy, did you know, plays poker on a world stage, and for big bucks. The guy is a billionaire, though who knows where all his money goes... Billy Barton, somewhere up there? What say ye?

....Okay, ladies holding your engines back there in the the green tent, have some Golden Flecked Green tea from L.Amyx; I promise a full scale salute once Covington Connected stops teasing me with sidebar traumas ... About which (still haunted by the above), I’d feel the same sense of premature desertion if Paul Binder and Michael Christensen threw in the towel, they too are formidable contributors to circus art .... Same if Lady Barbara Byrd shucked her three rings for a half circle ...or if John Ringling North II, showing promise in his first outing running a real circus, suddenly turned fickle ... One thing the circus has in its favor are big top kings (and now queens, we hope) who do not go gently into any night ... E-mails Jim Royal, about JRN II's daughter, Katherine North, an interior designer by trade who is subbing as manager for Royal while he goes ahead booking, “She is going a terrific job and is a real trouper.” Go, Katherine, go! And tell the poobahs of Dubai you are not for sale, and please, apply a little of your design savvy to that hopelessly stale website that bears the name Kelly-Miller. It is NOT up to Ringling standards. More Royal reports: JRN II is due in to rejoin Kelly-Miller for a spell ... "the weather has been giving us grief on and off since the day we opened.” Tell us about it, and our hearts go out. Biz? “Business has been good overall.”

And where do we go next ... When John Ringling North the original sold out, there was little outpouring of any sort of emotion. Well, he was still suffering for that fateful down-with-the-big top day in Pittsburgh. By the way, in no particular order, Carson and Barnes, slated to canvas up over the Cow Palace Parking lot on September 12 for three big days, will be doing it sixty seasons after Ringling-Barnum first played the then new arena and turned ‘em away by the thousands. This could be the first tenter ever to play San Francisco’s “Palace.” And I’m predicting turnaway crowds owing to lower class grateful families with kids lined up to take in a real old fashioned thrill, yes I am...

Artistically speaking, Rick Faber wonders about the great artwork of Bill Balantine for Ringling-Barnum's marvelous ‘54 side show fronts and menagerie interiors . Surprised, Rick, that nobody answered your querie on the CHS website. I will see what I can send you. Balantine artwork was masterful, almost Dalli like when you think about it, or might we say pre-Cirque? ...

I'm out of here. Fifteen minutes and here comes a show I have promised myself I will watch from start to finish: Celebrity Circus. Who knows, it might end up in Dubai...

Monday, June 16, 2008

Tonys Bless South Pacific, In the Heights, Gypsy; August: Osage County --- Totally Snub Mermaid & Frankenstein

The Tony Awards, 2008

Monster assembly line musicals got the Tony kiss-off last night. And the biggest turkeys were: Young Frankenstein and The Little Mermaid. Other tuners completely ignored: Cry Baby, A Catered Affair, Xanadu. Having seen the latter -- a disco roller romp that skids off the rink long before final curtain, I think sound judgement prevailed.

That left two new musicals to battle it out, In the Heights and Passing Strange. And what a strange outcome. Heights took four Tonys (Best Musical among them -- I thought it would sweep the awards, not realizing that both new shows and revivals are now lumped into the same category for production awards).

Strange landed one Tony, for Best Book. Hard to make sense of that. Some of the reviews as well as patron comments pointed to scripting problems. What I loved most about Heights was its finely crafted and very affecting book.

Along revival row, South Pacific was the big winner, and deservedly so, with seven Tonys. Gypsy garnered three.

The only play to triumph was August: Osage County -- 5 Tonys.

Sunday in the Park With George, another revival critically endorsed, got nothing. Neither did Grease.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Mid Week Midway Mix ...Circus Vargas breaking or folding???


Most troubling tidbit to toss around at the tea shop (I’m having Dragonwell, and you?...): Circus Vargas taking a “brief summer break,” per their website, promising to show up soon in Northern California. And my doubting heart sinks, fearing another long Circus Chimera summer, the latter having yet to return ... Oakland’s new Circus Bella (pictured above) as pure of heart as once was the Pickle Family Circus. It’s leader David Hunt e-mailed me a video of the gang in first outing charming a laid back Sebastopol gathering ... They’ve got dreams, and they’ve got wry Jeni Johnson who tilts whimsically off axis, pretending to be a reluctant ringmistress actually plotting inside to declare big top mutiny ... She’s a promising grad from the S.F. Clown Conservatory ... Watch her...

Egotist Richard Barstow, who directed Ringling-Barnum for many years, meets his equal and nearly ends up on the couch. Here’s the Great One in 1954, writing a letter to his boss, John Ringling North: “I beg of you to protect me from this mad man Barbette, as I cannot function with him screaming and interfering.” I read it to Sarasota friend Robert Mitchell over the phone, and Bob’s howling laugh was worth the sharing. “Barbette could be pretentious.” BTW, Bob remembered watching the great Clyde Beatty in 1952 up in Portland. “Everybody sat straight up in their seats.” So did we down in Santa Rosa....

And while we’re back in the glorious fifties, here’s Mr. North himself, memo writer, unhappy over ragged performances opening night, 1951, and holding no sacred cow sacred (go, Mr. North!): “Throw out Lou Jacobs’ car gag. He didn’t get the idea the opening night.” ... Okay, so keep it in? ... “Tell Arthur to tell Castle that I would wish him to be as good as he was when I first discovered him.... rather than as good as he convinced Arthur he was when he wanted to engage him in place of Unus.”

Bandwagon's Lane Talburt continues his survey of lovable Norma Davenport Cristiani, and in it, I read about one of the nicest guys I ever met, this during the summer when I “clowned” on Wallace Bros, and that would be Georgie Lake. Without a cloud to swing upon, the once thriving cross-dressing aerialist fell into clown alley, and there he is on the Wallace Bros. lot, 1961. He and another joey worked in drag. I neither dressed up nor down. Lake then suffered diabetes and a fondness for coca cola .... He and his long-time partner shared overnight space in the tail end of an animal semi. "Thursday night" was their night, and how they tried, they joked. Oh, what they did for love ... Young Russian wonder juggler, Vova Galchenko, profiled in depth by The New York Times. Protests idea of glitz and showmanship. Prefers technical mastery. Fails to dazzle at a world competition, his mastery on the ground. To be great you gotta deliver...

That Bella fella up there, David Hunt, flattering my blog (okay, pr may play a part, but, heck, I’m not about to review his trick any time soon): “It’s my reality check in,” writes David to David “only because your words often resonate my own sentiments about circus in the 21st century...” Glad to know I’m in sync somewhere, somehow. “We’re a long way to go but we’ve got dreams and I thank you for your perspective in helping me to stay focused on the ring, the tricks, and the mud.”

And he’s only 36-years-young! I feel connected to tomorrow. These kids are the ones who will decide if there is or is not a tomorrow. Kudos to their dreams!

Here’s me when I was not even half his age, back in high school blowing opinions right and left off a mimeograph machine, railing against what tonight may pass for another example of the big top falling short outside its sacred live rings: “The circus must convince the public that its impact will never be captured over a television screen.”

Celebrity Circus, okay, I'll be watching. Not exactly because I want to...

P.S. I watched the bed sheets ballet and the gushing judges who acclaimed it, and went to bed. Oh, no, might I have slept through hula hoops on pointe?

A Policy Note to Contributors ...

In order to avoid any future confusion, henceforth please be aware that anything you send me (solid news, rumors, speculation) will be considered fair game for coverage. If you do not wish to be referenced as the source, please so state at the beginning of your e-mail, and you may be assured that I will use something like "savvy insider" or "field sources," etc.

While it is not my intention to embarrass anyone, I do however retain the right to post anything that you send me.

I trust this will make our communications easier on both sides

Thanks.

Monday, June 09, 2008

The One Act Circus – Why Not?

Sunday Morning, Looking Back ...

It’s about time
our tent shows face up and pace up, intensify and get to the point: Pack the acts tighter, move 'em as fast as the Kentucky derby, and give the public a thrilling break. People no longer want long. Too many things to consume or IPod or text message out. Diminished capacity to sit still. Intermissionless shows elsewhere may be growing in popularity. So easy to take in. So unmessy. Sit down once. Get up once, and you’re out of there. Like taking in a movie. My open memo to circus owners: Give audiences your best stuff in one glorious rush. Concise. Prompt. Action-packed. And then finish fast. Better to leave ‘em wanting than worn.

On Broadway and off, some shows (the long-running Alta Boyz, for example) are nixing the interval. Xanadu on roller skates barely reaches the ninety minute mark (running out of steam way before then).

Many of today's cash-strapped circuses have been cutting back on acts and rarely run, in total performance time, much longer than ninety minutes anyway. Circus Osario, putting its two thin halves together, comes up with about forty minutes. Yes, I said forty. Over at Big Apple Circus in the mornings, the kids get so restless to run for the buses, so says company manager Don Covington, that they offer a slightly shortened version (cutting each act a little) to give the moppets an early exit.

Ironically, Carson and Barnes, which ran for years without an intermission, now sports one for reasons all to clear ... Yes, I am not totally dumb to the realities. "Concessions!" I can hear you shouting. Osario’s best act (which is not saying a whole lot), is a nifty Russian swing fling that sends the house into intermission on a high note, possibly lending the false illusion that more of the same will occur after they’ve bought their hot dogs and more cotton candy. Here's why audiences deserve brevity:

Circuses need more than kids with free ducats showing up. They need to generate word of mouth — remember world of mouth? When I saw it in 2005, Tuffy Nicholas's Sarasota-based Moscow Circus of Stars was worth a respectable look (a few top drawer moments) – all 90 minutes of it, but the long intermission only added to the onus of a desperate operation needing to sell sell sell -- anything. Run it without a break and audiences are more likely to leave much more impressed. And more likely to talk up the show.

Big Top Bits: Celebrity Circus, I see, kicks off this Wednesday. Anybody plan to watch it? I don’t relish famous faces making semi-fools of themselves in the ring ... Circus never has done well on television. Why not a real competition for young aspiring circus artists out of the schools? Why not? Because, I fear, nobody would tune in. It’s a given that the unwashed masses can sing and dance; not so, turn a triple or train a cat .... Bit Top websites, out of date, amaze me. Don’t these producers know we are living in a new age? New Cole (or Cole Bros or Cole Stars, name keeps changing) is running last year’s photos on its website.Kelly Miller's website is as stale as it was last season ... Can this economic recession, crippling vacation auto travel, not benefit the smaller shows that are so affordable? I’m betting on it ... The History Channel had a big spread on loggers up in Oregon, so why not one about the men who move our big tops? ... And, about pressing times, here’s another way to tip the public toward your tent: Along with free or discount kiddie tickets, promise ‘em dollar concessions! Or at least designated dollar shows ... On the other hand, why not give away free popcorn and charge for tickets instead?

And that's an unsolicited wrap...

from June 9 ,2008

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Broadway’s New Golden Age? Reenter the Populist Composer...


Gotta give it to you, Gotham, Times Square today looks like a traffic jam of hit musicals — your modernized marquees ablaze with acclaim. “Ground breaking!” Broadway may never seem the same!” “Brilliantly ridiculous!” “Best new musical in years!” On and on it goes, and I get dizzy trying to decide which shows to take a chance on.

Although I never walked Forty Second Street during the fifties — still remembered by the old guard as the greatest of “golden ages” — how can it compare to these booming nights? When West Side Story opened in 1957, during its modest nearly two-year run it would compete with maybe half a dozen musicals of viable value — among them, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, Flower Drum Song, The Sound of Music, Redhead. Most of these shows lasted three or four seasons at the most.

Fifty years later, the Great White Way wracks up one box office record after another on a new paradigm: the long running smash that never goes away. Phantom, the grand champion of longevity (hatched across the pond, mind you), celebrated 20 years last January; Lion King is going on eleven; Rent, 12. “Hit” song and dance shows today number in the dozen: Avenue Q, Spamalot, Hairspray, Jersey Boys, In the Heights; Mamma Mia, Mary Poppins, Little Mermaid, Spring Awakening, Wicked, Young Frankenstein — not to mention lesser holdouts like Legally Blond and Curtains. Nor to factor in the annual slate of revivals, some from the last “golden age.” South Pacific is nearly turning them away. Sunday in the Park with George and Gypsy both earned critical kisses. And, ah yes, I think Grease and A Chorus Line are also back.

Then you have off Broadway, which has found a persuasive path into audience awareness, thanks in part to the half price tickets booth. Altar Boyz, a nearly perfect 90 minute romp, is one of the best new musicals I’ve seen in decades. It is still on the boards.

What is so arguably wonderful — perhaps superior in today’s market —are the eclectically wide ranging scores, and that’s why, I suspect, Broadway houses are doing so well. Theatregoers have always wanted music that moves them, and Broadway has figured out how to advance beyond Rodgers and Hammerstein and Cole Porter, even beyond Stephen Sondheim, into more recent melodic territory. Once the new songwriters broke free of the abstract Sondheim concept musical mold, they found their own voices, and younger audiences have responded in droves. While I left Spring Awakening less than completely sold (it is so commercially calculated), I’ll be the first to admit it has a handful of terrific rock numbers. Light in the Piazza offered a more serious operatic intense score that dug deep and sang high. And the very affecting In the Heights moves on a kind of hot salsa/ ersatz hip hop beat. The public has so much more variety from which to chose at the box office in 2008.

How good are these shows? Some that knock me over(Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) don’t even last. Others that manage to hold on (Aida) leave me totally unimpressed. As for the “critics,” they toss out so many marque-ready adjectives, that I wonder if they are thinking at all. One thing is resoundingly clear: Times Square is working its magic on public taste. Broadway has always been a popular market place for middlebrow entertainment seekers. It has found its way back in the key of now (and relative now), and that’s why it’s booming.


[photos, from top: In the Heights; Jersey Boys]

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Joy Over Broadway for South Pacific Revival .. Can the REAL Flower Drum Song be Next?



Originally posted April 4.

Any Rodgers and Hammerstein fan will be floating on clouds over the near unanimous raves just accorded the first New York revival of South Pacific. I am floating, I must tell you, and I can’t wait to see it in May. Here’s one I’ll pay through the nose to see.

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammer- stein II were once so popular, so critically acclaimed, that a TV tribute to their work in the early 1950s was broadcast nationally on all three major networks. Yes, all three. The country sang their songs. Hollywood made gold turning their stage musicals into film hits. Their made-for-television Cinderella starring Julie Andrews was seen by 107 million Americans — nearly twice the number who viewed Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show. R & H were the Gods of Broadway.

Then came the ‘60s, and then came Stephen Sondheim and a new breed of realists who produced to their credit some searing and showstopping musicals. Shows like Cabaret and Company, Sweeney Todd and Jesus Christ Superstar made Oklahoma and Carousel seem old hat, overly sentimental and hopelessly dated. Cockeyed optimism turned to hip pessimism..

The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, desperate in recent years to prove to the world that, really, Dick and Oscar had a darker side, too, fell like a midway sucker for the pitches of egotistic directors seeking to turn those sunny musicals into brooding operettas full of angst and doom. The critics tended to welcome these tortured revisions, just, I suppose, to be able to hear the magnificent scores.

This sad detour in musical theatre history reached its nadir with the so-called “revival” of Flower Drum Song, which was flat out a total obliteration of the original script under the weight of playwright Henry David Hwang’s self-indulgent rewrite, which not only ignored the stage musical but the novel upon which it was faithfully based. (I explored this troubling saga in my book Flower Drum Songs: The Story of Two Musicals.) Hwang’s artistic sabotage was generally panned by the critics and flopped out on Broadway. Let me state: Like South Pacific until this past glorious week at the Lincoln Center, the real Flower Drum Song has NEVER, repeat NEVER been revived on Broadway. And I now have reason to believe its chances have suddenly skyrocketed.

You don’t repaint the Mona Lisa. Don’t re-edit Wilder’s film classic Sunset Boulevard. And who would dare change a note of any Beetles song? Neither do you mess around with the classics turned out by two giants of musical theatre. The triumphant return to New York of South Pacific (already, the limited run has been extended through next year) will do more than anything to bring my point home to the powers who run the R&H office on the Avenue of the Americas.

They are Mary Rodgers and Ted Chapin, and I’ll bet you anything they are suddenly rethinking their attitude towards the one remaining R&H hit yet to be given a second chance on the Great White Way. They said South Pacific was too old hat and quaint to be brought back. Said the same thing of Flower Drum Song.

What, Broadway, are they saying now?

[photos, from top down: At the opening night party, Kelli O'Hara and Paulo Szot; Loretta Ables Sayre, Matthew Morrison and Li Junli (photos by Walter McBride/Retna); Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, 1951; Director Gene Kelly, Pat Suzuki and Richard Rodgers at opening night curtain calls for Flower Drum Song, December 1, 1958]

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Sunday Morning Looking Back: Reaching for the Unreachable, Even If They Agree to Talk, What Might They Say, if Anything?


Consider it a done deal, at least here, that the higher they fly under the big top, the harder they are to reach. For years, I tried reaching John Ringling North, once writing to Henry Kissinger, hoping he might set up a visit for me with the reigning Ringling ...

John’s faithful brother, Henry, was my ultimate ace in the hole ... The most memorable thing that JRN told me? He once tried talking abstract artist Salvator Dali into designing the costumes for his circus (can you imagine???). Dali was reachable, okay, but his fees were not. Ah, even big top tycoons experience unreachable let downs ...

Were I to reach Guy Laliberte (I am still trying to book space ship travel to his rumored porta parlor over planet earth), how revealing a subject might he be? You can’t bank on blockbusters from moguls. Like the intuitive Mr. North who answered my questions in a few words, I have a feeling that Laliberte operates in a similar fashion, having watched him pass terse judgements after reviewing new acts in rehearsal (the making of Varakei on Bravo). The lords of the rings rarely reveal what the peons in spangles will tell you ...

Paul Binder is one rare exception, a big top leader from ivy league college land. During the interview he granted me, he hit his stride linking the sawdust ring to its primal origins around primitive community circles ... Chris Lashua, of the younger generation, surprised me by linking Barnum and the Ringlings to Cirque du Soleil — they all searched the globe for the strange and the exotic, reminded Chris ...

The easiest of all for me to reach, ironically, were the once- mysteriously guarded Russians, back in 1979 before their iron curtain of secrecy fell. A consulate receptionist in San Francisco told me to write to the Minister of Culture in Moscow, name not given. And so I did. A few months later came a cablegram from head circus man Anatoly Kolevatov (later convicted for embezzlement) announcing that they were ready to receive me. What a great Bolshevik breakthrough!... And when I got there, Mr. K was “away,” and nobody in the Moscow office had a clue about my visit. Desperately I reached out to a young man at the ministry of culture. He received me with youthful sympathy, and the gates of socialist circusdom were finally within my reach ...

Reaching for the elusive: Emmett Kelly picked up a telephone when I dialed his Sarasota number and glumly declined to cooperate ... Lloyd Morgan (okay, I too have a “C” list) glumly said he expected to be paid, and I glumly withdrew. I’ve yet to pay an interviewee; what a corruptible result might ensue ...

Sarasota Central, working its contacts, handed me a phone number assumed to have belonged to quad prince Miguel Vazquez, allegedly given by the elusive prince to another once-fine flyer who had likely reached after Miguel. If so, a bum number he was handed, for every time I anxiously dialed it, the nasty sound of a busy signal on speed suggested a dead end for dreamers ... In the entire world of the circus, he is my number one choice for an interview.

Give or take half a century, and Mr. Guy Laliberte by then may be suddenly reachable at last — on his inevitable way down, or maybe in rehab seeking a visitor — or needing help out of a malfunctioning astro shuttle grounded on the wrong side of the Oakland hood ... By the way, does he by any chance have a brother — preferably one living within reach of the Twilight Zone?

from June 3, 2008