Sunday, August 26, 2012

He who blogs and runs away

He settled Hoti's business--let it be!--
       Properly based Oun--
Gave us the doctrine of the enclitic De,
       Dead from the waist down.

A few years back, there was a blog I read every day. Then I noticed that the author of the blog was posting infrequently after years of posting almost every day. Then he wasn't posting at all, and some random blog entry was at the head of the page every time I clicked on it. And then the blog was gone, shut down, and I wondered why he stopped writing it.

So, having followed that same pattern myself -- less frequent posting followed by hardly any posting at all -- I should do what I wished that other guy had done, and write a post explaining why I'm no longer blogging here (though the archives will hopefully remain up as long as Blogger does). Except I'm not sure I can explain it, and to the extent I can explain it, it's not all that interesting. It comes down to the reason most people stop blogging: they use up the ideas they're aching to write about, and then blogging becomes work. A personal blog is not work, and once you can't generate ideas for it, you have to ask yourself if you should keep trying, or find something else to do in your spare time. I think I should try to do the latter, partly because I think I might be able to write better that way.

 (I should strongly emphasize that this post is only about this blog, Something Old, Nothing New. This has nothing to do with professional work, only personal after-hours blogging.)

Looking back on my work at this blog, I don't think I used up all my ideas right off the bat, although many of the posts I still find valuable are the early ones, where I was talking about things I'd thought of but hadn't heard mentioned much, in print or online. ("Bad sitcoms with good writing," where I awkwardly tried to argue for a different definition of a well-written TV show, is one.) The most valuable thing about blogging is that it allows you to find pieces written from narrow but highly-focused expertise: I would never be able to write a book on all of movie history or comics history or theatre history, but I was able to write a bit about the things that a book would have to skip over in a couple of paragraphs.

Everyone has their own idea of where a blog goes right and wrong, and my own opinions on this blog's strengths and weaknesses aren't necessarily the correct ones. However, I think the blog was strongest when most enthusiastic, worse when trying to evaluate something from a sense of duty, and worst when being negative. It's not that negativism is always bad. Some of my favorite writers are at their best showing you what's bad and what could have been better. But maybe because this is a fan blog, created mostly to talk about the things that excited me, I sometimes sounded ridiculous and petty when trying to do negative criticism. My "things that suck" series of posts is embarrassing; half the time I'd be beating up on something for flaws that don't even matter, and the other half I'd be bashing something that clearly does not deserve it. For example, I don't care for Harvey comics, but comics that employed Ernie Colón and Warren Kremer don't "suck," and I understand that now.

 The worst thing about online criticism is that it's helped revive a certain kind of snarky, superior judgment that was once more common in print; it's a tone that suggests that the work in question is so obviously beneath the critic that he doesn't even owe it the courtesy of taking an interest in what it's doing. I'm better at discussing everything as if it's interesting, even the bad stuff. At least the "Why I Hate Family Guy" post, which is probably the most-read post I ever wrote, was passionate rather than snarky. I don't even hate that show any more (I don't like it, but I don't hate it) but at least the tone of the post is not dismissive. I no longer care for dismissiveness.

The thing I liked best about this blog was that I was sometimes able to analyze something in a way that made sense - if that makes sense. Maybe because I was turned down for the PH.D program in English, I tended to avoid an academic style in my writing. (I think I went to the opposite extreme and used language that was too simplistic; I sometimes feel like my first inclination is to write like the captions in a corporate children's picture book). I think it doesn't matter if something was intended by an artist, as long as it's there. But I don't enjoy reading something that doesn't take any of the circumstances behind the work into account, or reads things in that aren't consistent with the shape or form of the work. The question I try to ask myself is: if a work has a certain effect on me, why does it have that effect? Where does it come from? What am I responding to and how can I explain that? Sometimes I can explain it, sometimes I can't, but I think at least some of what I've said can be justified by the works themselves, and I'm glad about that.

On the other hand, I wished I could have found a more dynamic writing style for this blog. Right from the beginning I worried that the format would make it seem too much like a lecture. I decided I couldn't really help it, so I chose to keep going, pick the things I wanted to write about, and then say what I had been thinking about them. Because of the mix of fact and opinion - the facts I had read about various subjects (and I read a lot about some of them) combined with my own opinions - it could sometimes seem like I was speaking from authority when I really wasn't. I know a few readers felt I was too inclined to sound like everything was the definitive history of everything, when it wasn't. In some cases, that helped: to write anything that hasn't already been written about some of these things, you have to be willing to extrapolate. Someone once told me that a post I did was very accurate about what went on in the room when that project was being developed; I never would have gotten that close to the truth if I hadn't been willing to do some educated guessing. (If there are interviews with the people involved, you have to do even more guessing to reconcile them and figure out what was going on.) But educated guessing is still guessing. If I had had a more poetic or fanciful writing style, that would have been more appropriate for some of the posts. I could never quite shake off that tone of being the guy who tells everything he's ever read or thought on a particular topic.

Well, that's just the kind of person I am, and after all, that's what a personal blog is - a reflection of who you are. I'm not, as this blog probably makes clear, very good at writing about my own personal feelings, but your personality emerges even if you never give a single detail from your own life. This blog seems like the work of someone who's prone to getting excited about, and doing lots of research on, things that are relatively minor, while sometimes losing sight of the bigger picture of life and art. My favorite poem is Robert Browning's "A Grammarian's Funeral," about a man who spent his entire life researching a few trivialities of Latin grammar. The poem can be read as a warning -- don't waste your life on such things; don't say you'll live it up when you've finished your work, because you might die before you finish. But it can also be read as praise for the people who look at these trivialities, since it's implied that without people like the anonymous grammarian, we might never have had the Renaissance. 

My evaluation of myself is a little closer to the second, more positive view of the Grammarian. In this sense: I think I've occasionally managed to say things that haven't been said very often, even at the risk of being focused on trivial things. Archie Comics is an example. I wouldn't demand any prizes for being able to look at an old Archie comic and figure out who wrote it, but hardly anyone anywhere had mentioned Frank Doyle, let alone identified any of his uncredited scripts, and the general idea was that Archie comics were all written in the same style. Now there is slightly more awareness of a few of the key figures at that company and the individual styles there. I wasn't the main contributor to that awareness, and it's not the most important thing in the world, but it's like a small article of Latin grammar: helping to call attention to the little things can feel surprisingly good at times.

Now, when you focus a lot on small things, and combine that with a slightly contrarian take on -- not everything, but some things -- you run the risk of focusing too much on things that don't really matter. That's the downside of the Grammarian's life. One reason why I don't think I would make a good episodic TV reviewer, and why I so admire the people who do it well, is that it requires confident judgment and a genuine enthusiasm for the new. Enthusiasm for the new is the quality I envy in a lot of people I know, because I think that the new stuff is really what matters most. Not that new stuff is the best, though (as I've said before) it seems like a new-is-best attitude is becoming more prevalent even as older stuff is more easily available. But new stuff is what makes art go. When great new works stop being created, as in opera, the form becomes decadent and resorts to desperate tricks and gimmicks to make the older works seem "relevant." So while it's great to call attention to the great old work, the most valuable thing a critic can do is build enthusiasm for the great new work. That just doesn't seem to be my thing.

I sometimes have a delayed reaction to new work, catching up with it a while after it comes out. Other times I'll get more enthusiastic about a new work I can't really recommend as a whole, just because it has something that interests me, while not being able to muster up much enthusiasm about something perfectly solid. A lot of television, film and other work falls into that latter category for me, now and always. But it's a particularly tough time to enthuse about television, because so much of the work falls into one of two categories: quality shows that wear their quality and their themes on their sleeve, and don't really have a lot of layers to peel (there's not much depth to some of the HBO things that keep indicating, in every scene, what they're supposed to be about), and populist shows that are poorly-made or bland. My heart seems to lie with things that are too cheesy to be high art, yet have too much artistry and power to be dismissed as mere cheese. But those are hard to come by at the moment, except maybe in the better reality shows. And it's probably true that that kind of thing is easier to spot in hindsight anyway: if I had been alive in the '50s, I doubt I would have noticed that the best American movies were being made by the likes of Ray and Sirk. If you ask me ten years from now what the best shows of the 2011 were, I think I'll have a better answer.

(When it comes to TV, I also find - and have said before - that I focus on the three-camera studio audience sitcom to the point of monomania, though more on Twitter than on the blog. I do it because, honestly, I think it's one of the few things where I have a unique perspective: there aren't many people online who are that big a fan of that format, or as unenthused by the one-camera, no-laugh-track format. But I should think it's really irritating to hear a particular point repeated too often, and that's one of the basic problems of blogging and tweeting. If you have a point to make, you almost have to repeat it over and over, if only because you're not guaranteed a large audience for any one of the individual statements. But it's bloody repetitive and creates the feeling that I won't let go of the subject, I realize that.)

Anyway, you can't force yourself to be enthusiastic about anything, and in some cases, a lack of fandom can produce better writing, or allow something to be approached from a different angle. I sometimes do my better work when I'm trying to illuminate a point, rather than trying to say that this show is great or terrible. Still, I love enthusiasm; it is, let us say, the thing I'm most enthusiastic about. And that's part of why I think I should stop writing Something Old, Nothing New. Because I think some of the enthusiasm has gone out of my approach to the stuff I love, and not writing about it might help me to get it back. Sometimes you like something so much that you want to tell everyone that you like it, and why you like it. And the great thing about the internet is that it made it easier for us to do that, without joining fan clubs or, god forbid, meeting other fans in person (if there are any). But it also requires you to explain why you like something, maybe sometimes defend it against people who don't like it. 

This isn't new; that's been a part of my experience since I've been online (it'll soon be 20 years that I've been posting stuff online, and wow, that seems like a long time). But I find lately that I'm watching things I love through other people's eyes, trying to feel how it might seem to someone else - a potential reader, the theoretical modern viewer, anyone - not to me. I find myself looking for the flaws, trying to think of how to explain why the piece works in spite of those flaws. That's all wrong. If the flaws matter to you, that's one thing, but if the piece works for you, if it makes you laugh, then are they really flaws at all? Well, yes, they are flaws if you're discussing them. In evaluating something, you have to weigh the good with the bad and explain why it works for you. But that's why discussing something can feel like picking it apart. There are times when I haven't been able to approach something with the same open-wide enthusiasm after blogging about it, not because of anything anyone said in response, but just because I examined it too closely. Maybe the universities were right, and we were meant to study only the things we don't really like.

Maybe because of the impulse to pick things apart and figure out how I'm going to talk about them, I find myself having less of an attention span, experiencing old movies and shows in a technical, piecemeal sort of way. I think if I don't blog about them, don't tweet about them, just keep them as pleasures for myself and anyone who happens to be unlucky enough to be around in person, I can get back to experiencing these old works the way I did when I was younger: not as "old" works, not as representatives of a time and place, but just things that show me a different way of looking at the world, or have a resonance that goes beyond a simple description of their genre tricks. Unexpected depth, maybe that's the term. Depth can be found in the strangest places, but one can sometimes be self-conscious about saying so, and eventually, one devolves into a self-parody. The A-Team does have more depth than Boardwalk Empire, but saying so at length is not really of much use to anyone. If you're deeply moved by some Bob Merrill Broadway song, it almost does the song a disservice to subject it to paragraphs of analysis to find out why. Sometimes this works, and I'm quite proud of, for example, my shot-for-shot analysis of why that goofy dance scene from Bye Bye Birdie has always seemed so powerful and thrilling to me. But I don't think that's necessary for everything, and sometimes it's counter-productive. The effect something has on you does not become less powerful if you can somehow prove that it was a great work of art.

So my solution is to try and get back into the experience of the stuff I like, concentrate a bit more on experiencing it and a bit less on explaining it. And a lot less on basically irrelevant things like how many other people like it or whether kids today are less interested in old stuff than kids of the '80s, or whatever else. There comes a point where if your enthusiasm is being swallowed up by the analysis, the analysis has to go, and blogging has to give way to other, more immediate forms of shared experience - like organizing screenings. (Back in college I screened VHS copies of some of my favorite Warner Brothers and Tex Avery cartoons. The screenings could have been better done; they ran too long; but that kind of local, direct way of sharing the experience is still probably more useful than asking people to check out something on YouTube. And I love YouTube; I just know that you still need to get people into rooms to watch things or discuss them.) And as enthusiasm rekindles, I think writing improves.

I want to thank everyone who has read and commented on Something Old, Nothing New since 2004. Like many bloggers, I learned a lot from people who commented and emailed. I became smarter about certain things, less naive about others. With one good comment, I could discover that what I thought I knew about something wasn't necessarily the only way to look at it, and that was wonderful to find. And in 2005, when I was articling as a lawyer, writing this blog in the evenings was incredible training in the discipline of writing every day in a style that non-lawyers could understand. When I'm asked how to get into journalism, one of the more useful pieces of advice I can give is to blog - it just trains you to write fast and clear, to take reader response into account. I don't know if the term "blogging" will even survive the decade, but the act of writing every day in a personal space, for people who can see it and may not necessarily know you, will always be with us, and that's a good thing. I'm certainly glad I did it.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Jule Styne's Big Break

I was just watching this clip from the movie Sis Hopkins, starring Judy Canova, and was reminded that Jule Styne claimed (in Max Wilk's book They're Playing Our Song) that this was the film that turned his career around. Having decided that he wanted to dedicate himself to songwriting instead of arranging, Styne was composing for low-budget movies at Republic, and the way he told it (which may not be the way it was) he asked Republic to borrow Frank Loesser from Paramount to be his lyricist on this picture. Loesser, a rising star as a lyricist, was (according to Styne) not happy about being loaned out to a "B" studio, but he liked a tune Styne had lying around, and told him not to use it in Sis Hopkins, but to save it for a future project.

When Loesser went back to Paramount, he got them to borrow Styne, and the two of them wrote the song up as "I Don't Want to Walk Without You," which became a major hit and made Styne one of the most in-demand composers in the business. As he told it, once he'd written a hit while on loan-out, he was suddenly treated with respect at Republic, teamed with Sammy Cahn as his regular lyricist, and freed to write an astonishing string of pop hits.

"When I come back to Republic with two hit songs at Paramount, you know, it's a whole different ballgame. They now ask me, and now they're recording there with forty-six men! They never paid a flute $135 for a date before. The music contractor says, 'Why do we need a flute? We never used a flute here.' I said 'It's a very important instrument.' 'Harps? We're walking in the mud and you want harps?' They're paying $10 a page for orchestration - always paid $3. They were kind of shaken, but they went with me because it must be right. I must be right if I'd written songs with Frank Loesser."

This song from Sis Hopkins by Styne and Loesser is pretty good too, and makes me want to see the rest of the picture just to hear what else they came up with. One thing that struck me is that it's a song in a subgenre of entertainment that was particularly big in the years 1939-41, during World War II but before America entered the war. That is: left-wing patriotic entertainment. This is a rah-rah America song, but with a distinctly liberal, populist, Rooseveltian message about the glory of working people and the value of what they do -- and it ends by connecting the celebration of the working man to the celebration of the military, which is getting ready to defend America from the coming storm. This strain of left patriotism is all over movies like The Grapes of Wrath and The Devil and Daniel Webster, and songs by the likes of Yip Harburg and Loesser. This would be less common after the U.S. got into the war, since the messages had to be more about the necessity to win, and after the war, of course, came the Cold War and the end of this kind of populist (or, depending on who was writing it, Popular Front) style.

Here's the number, staged by the director -- or the second-unit director -- with an obvious nod to Lubitsch's "Beyond the Blue Horizon."

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Gingerbread Chronicles

In 1970, Life magazine sent its reporter Richard Meryman to cover the tryouts of Neil Simon's The Gingerbread Lady, and I recently read the complete article, courtesy of Life's free digitized archives. Here's the link to the piece; let me know if the link doesn't work properly.

Though the number of advertising interruptions makes a modern TV show look smooth by comparison, it's a good article, and Meryman was lucky enough to get in on the most problematic tryout Simon had had up to that point.

The Gingerbread Lady was the darkest play Simon had ever written, a very self-conscious attempt to be as serious as possible while still retaining the form and style of his comedies. Both Simon and his longtime producer, Arnold Saint-Subber, got cold feet after the Boston reviews were bad, and they considered closing the show. Simon has argued that this was Saint-Subber's idea alone, but the article suggests that the Boston reviews brought out all of Simon's insecurity, and that he also wanted to close it unless he could think of a way of fixing it. Saint-Subber also wanted to close it, though, because he wanted to "protect" Simon: after an uneven producing career, Simon's plays had made him one of the few consistently successful producers of the '60s, and the fear was that a flop in New York would damage Simon's brand.

Finally, after much lobbying from the actors, Simon decided to rewrite, and he did so by eliminating a lot of the darkest material in the play. The play is about a self-destructive alcoholic named Evy Meara (Maureen Stapleton) who returns from rehab and gets the perfect chance to redeem herself: her beautiful, witty and all-around perfect teenage daughter Polly (Ayn Ruymen) moves in with her mother to help her get her life back on track. In the second act, Evy's self-destructive impulses and the personal problems of her friends Toby (Betsy Von Furstenberg) and Jimmy (Michael Lombard) drive Evy off the wagon, and she ends the second act by going out to meet a violent ex-lover, who beats her up. The original third act was going to have Evy finally prove herself to be irredeemable.

In the rewrite, her most degrading behavior was eliminated, there was a suggestion that she could give helpful advice to one of her hanger-on friends, and the play ended on a hopeful note. These revisions disappointed some of the actors, who were rooting for Simon to go all the way and not cop out with a happy ending. This was always an issue that surrounded Simon from the moment he started getting more serious. It actually started with Plaza Suite. He originally thought it was going to be a full-length play about a man and woman's marriage dissolving. He wrote the first act and then realized that he couldn't write a happy ending without making it seem contrived -- so he ended it ambiguously, and made it the first of three one-act plays. Plaza Suite essentially was a show that got happier as it went along: the first play was very dark, the second was bittersweet but lighter than the first, and the last act was pure farce ("an entertainment piece," Simon called it somewhat condescendingly) that sent the audience out happy. Gingerbread Lady was going to play this process in reverse, getting darker and darker as it goes along from beginning to end.

Not having read the original version, I have no idea how it would have played, but it certainly doesn't seem like a play that lends itself to such a dark third act. You can see where the original version might have had more bite. In particular, there are two characters who appear in the first act, were originally supposed to come back in the third, and who just vanish from the play in the version that reached Broadway. But the play as it now exists does seem to be leading up to a happy, or at least hopeful, ending. To sustain a sad ending, a lot of the weight of the play would have to be on Polly, the daughter who tries to be a mother to her own mother. She can either get fed up and leave, or Evy can kick her out for her own good, or they can reconcile and work together to make things better. And Polly is such a weak character, as written, that the only thing she seems capable of doing is coming back and working to redeem her mother.

It's hard to write about a Neil Simon play without somehow reviewing the audience -- ever since at least The Odd Couple, what a critic thinks about Simon is partly what he thinks about the middle-aged New Yorkers who are perceived to be Simon's core audience. I'm trying not to do that here, but when I read Polly's part, I do feel like she is the teenager a 1970 theatregoer wished he had, instead of his own. She has no apparent wants and needs of her own, no life of her own; she just wants to help her mom. She talks like she's at least 20 years older than she is, with occasional teenage references thrown in: "I'll never take another drop in my life. From now on I'm sticking with marijuana." (I used to say, as many people do, that all of Simon's characters talk alike. I no longer think that's true, but I do think that when he doesn't know what a character would think or feel in real life, he reverts to a sort of default style that could fit in any character's mouth, and that's what happens with Polly; he doesn't know, or won't write, what a teenager would talk about, so she talks like a generic Neil Simon character.) Simon and director Robert Moore fired the original Polly during rehearsals, and it seems like it was a part they never really licked; this weighs the play down, because it's basically weighted toward the relationship between Evy and Polly, yet Polly is not a convincing character at any moment. And the only thing she could convincingly do is keep trying with her mother; that's all she exists to do.

The play works better when dealing with Evy's two friends, who make sense as the sort of hangers-on a moderately successful showbiz personality would have around her. Jimmy, Simon's first gay character, who seems a bit reminiscent of Simon's Last of the Red Hot Lovers star James Coco (maybe I'm just saying this because of the name and the fact that Coco played the part in the film version), is a convincing portrait of an old young actor, the kind of guy who never got a break and is increasingly furious at having to grovel to directors who are younger than he is. And Toby (Betsy Von Furstenberg) is an aging-beauty-queen type of character who gets some very good aging-beauty-queen speeches. Simon's plays sometimes leave you wishing they had fewer characters; his next play, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, is a gripping two-character comedy for the first few scenes, and suddenly loses steam when new characters turn up in the second act. And The Gingerbread Lady seems to work best as a three-character play about Stapleton, her two friends, and their unhealthy mutual dependence.

The Life article doesn't deal with the play beyond the New York reviews, but while it wasn't a hit, it wasn't the embarrassment Saint-Subber feared (Saint-Subber would be dumped as Simon's producer one play later). The reviews were respectful enough, it ran 193 performances, Stapleton won the Tony, and Simon eventually sold it to the movies, where he rewrote it as a vehicle for Marsha Mason under the title Only When I Laugh. The experience of writing the play probably also informed his next two comedies, The Prisoner of Second Avenue and The Sunshine Boys, which are two of his most durable plays; the experience of writing a darker show informed his comedy writing in some interesting ways. (Though his attempt at an out-and-out black comedy, God's Favorite, is beyond redemption.) So his decision -- bring the show into New York but rewrite it to be less bleak -- probably worked out for him, and for Stapleton.

This was also Simon's last three-act play, and he held out with that structure as long as he possibly could; nonmusical plays were switching to two acts all throughout the '60s (and even, in some cases, just cutting out the intermission altogether). The three act form in American commercial theatre is a bit like the two-act form in the American television sitcom, which is currently dying out in favor of more or fewer act breaks. The idea in both cases is to have a long first act that sets up everything we need to know about the characters and the situation, so that the writer can pile on a lot of complications very fast after the break. The second act is where all the complications get really bad, and the third act is where they're resolved. (In a two-act sitcom, you have the second act as a sort of combination of complication/resolution, sometimes followed by a tag where things calm down a bit.) The advantage of this structure is that it perfectly mirrors the three-part structure that almost every story follows: exposition/complication/resolution. The disadvantage is that the first act is almost all exposition, which means that the longest act is one where not much happens. It's not surprising that plays moved toward two-act or one-act forms, where the playwright could grab the audience early and not send them out again until something "big" had occurred.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Obscure Musicals: DONNYBROOK!

People often complain that too many musicals are based on popular movies. I don't really agree with the complaint -- a movie is, in many ways, more appropriate for musical adaptation than a play. (The biggest argument against adapting a movie used to be that Broadway shows made a lot of their money from starting a bidding war for the movie rights, which you can't do if a movie studio already owns the property. Once movie sales dried up, that argument was no longer compelling.) But however you feel about this practice, it really took off in 1961. That year, two new musicals premiered on Broadway that were based on films less than a decade old (unlike Silk Stockings, which was based on an older film). One of these shows, Carnival! was based on 1953's Lili, and was a hit. This is the other one.

It's based on The Quiet Man, a movie that had many things going for it as a musical property. A romance, a picturesque setting, merry villagers, and a story structure that lends itself to the two-act format of a Broadway musical. It also has some drawbacks that become clearer the closer you look at it: it doesn't have much plot, and what little conflict it has is building to a resolution that is telegraphed far in advance; it's an atmosphere film, a charm film. The musical version was, accordingly, what William Goldman has called a "charm show." Not a big show with gigantic production numbers (like Carnival or the same director's Hello, Dolly!, small stories given a busy production that makes them feel important enough for an evening). A little show with no big stars, that hopefully sends the audience out feeling warm and happy.

The book was written by Robert McEnroe, who wrote a successful Broadway comedy called The Silver Whistle but hadn't had a play produced since then. The score was by Johnny Burke, a great pop lyricist (Bing Crosby's favorite lyricist, of "Swinging on a Star" and much more) here trying to pull a Frank Loesser and write his own music. Adding to the Loeserian feel, two of the actors were from The Most Happy Fella -- Art Lund in the John Wayne role, and Susan Johnson as a widow created for the purposes of the then-obligatory comic subplot. Barry Fitzgerald's part went to Eddie Foy Jr. And the Maureen O'Hara part was taken by Joan Fagan, a dancer who had never created a role on Broadway before; she got her big break during the Philadelphia tryout when the original lead, Kipp Hamilton, was stricken with pneumonia. But when Hamilton recovered, she took over the role; Fagan is on the cast album, though.

This very non-starry cast was in the hands of Jack Cole, a great choreographer doing his first and only shows as director that year (the other was Kean). In other words, a creative team consisting of a lot of people doing things for the first time (writing a musical, directing a musical, writing music).

For a "charm show" to be a hit, it has to be pretty much perfect all the way through and include some real standout performances -- like Bye Bye Birdie the previous season. Donnybrook! apparently was not one of those shows. It received generally good reviews, but that just proves that good reviews don't help a show if they are respectful, unexciting reviews; nothing short of raves will convince people to go see a show with no stars and no big hook. Donnybrook! wasn't the sort of show to get raves, so it closed after 69 performances.

I haven't read the book; people who have read it or seen it say it wasn't very good. Burke's score is another matter. He was an exceptionally skilled lyricist, whose words had an unusual quality that Sammy Cahn described as "lacier and more fragile" than the average pop lyric. Burke was also an alcoholic, and his drinking was apparently what caused both Crosby and his composing partner, Jimmy Van Heusen, to cut him loose in the '50s. (Van Heusen replaced Burke with Cahn, who was more reliable though less individual and interesting.) He had always longed for a successful Broadway show, although his efforts with Van Heusen had been flops. When he took up composing for Donnybrook!, he was only in his 50s, and he claimed to have given up drinking, but he was only three years away from death. Yet the score doesn't sound like the work of an amateur composer, nor the work of a man near to death; there are some dud songs, but there are several songs that are clever, tender and above all, charming. It's a "charm" score.

The charm is apparent in the first song, probably the only one that's had any life outside the show (there's a YouTube video of students performing it). "Sez I" is a type of song that every heroine has been singing almost literally since musicals were invented: she announces that the man for her hasn't come along yet, but when he does, she'll know it right away. How do you make this sub-genre of song interesting again? By casting it not as a ballad, but an energetic up-tempo number punctuated by hand-claps, where the refrain alternates with a contrasting section ("There's an old, old sayin'...") that's almost a separate song in itself.

"Sad Was the Day," the introductory number for the big, beautiful belt voice of Susan Johnson, was one of the songs Stephen Sondheim put on his list of "Songs I Wish I'd Written." I can see why; it seems on the surface like a peppy one-joke comedy song, but everything about it is a little unusual. The music is remarkably tricky, with many changes of rhythm (the trickiness isn't just for its own sake, either; it works dramatically, conveying the subtext of the piece). The lyrics go through just about every rhyme for "died" that you can find in the rhyming dictionary. It manages to tell the story of an entire marriage and a husband who wasn't evil, just a bore to live with. It gives us a complete portrait of the character who sings it even though she never comes out and directly states the point of the song (that she's happier now that she's alone), it has an arc to the story it tells, it incorporates choral commentary -- which has its own subtext, different from the singer's -- and it ends with a perfect little pun: Johnson's "Ah, men!" followed by the chorus's "Amen." It's such a difficult piece that I don't know if anyone but Susan Johnson could have pulled it off, but luckily Burke had Susan Johnson.

As part of the secondary couple, Johnson also got two delightful duets with Eddie Foy: "I Wouldn't Bet One Penny," another example of Burke rhyming more heavily than he usually did (he could rhyme; most good lyricists can; but in his pop lyrics he preferred to keep things as simple as possible), and a song that actually describes itself in the title, "Dee-Lightful is the word."

But here we see a possible problem: apart from the heroine's opening number, most of the songs that come to mind as highlights are charm songs for the secondary comic-relief couple. This would be like if Will and Ado Annie dominated Oklahoma! Where's the big duet for the lead couple? Where are the songs that make us root for their romance? There don't seem to be any. The leads don't have a duet at all, and while Lund gets one nice ballad, "Ellen Roe," his other songs are among the weakest in the show. This song, for example, is deadly; if "Sad Was the Day" is an example of how effective a song can be when people don't sing what they feel, "A Quiet Life" demonstrates why a song should not just summarize the character's situation for us.

Fagan and Hamilton were luckier than Lund; in addition to "Sez I," the heroine gets a lovely ballad in Burke's fragile poetic pop style, "He Makes Me Feel I'm Lovely." The song is a bit weakened by a dull, expository verse, though. (Introductory verses almost separate the Broadway pro from the amateur: the great composers knew how to make them musically interesting, while middling composers wrote verses that make you tap your fingers waiting for the refrain.)

An Encores! revival of Donnybrook! is probably not in the cards, since it does seem to be a fragile, wispy show that might not stand up to the scrutiny of a big concert. But the cast album, with Robert Ginzler's great orchestrations (after his success with Bye Bye Birdie, Ginzler -- formerly a TV arranger and Don Walker's uncredited assistant -- suddenly became one of the busiest orchestrators on Broadway before his own untimely death in 1963), is a fun listen for its charm, its sweetness, and those flashes of the unexpected. Just grit your teeth through some of Lund's material and the title song, which nobody seems to like.

There's never been a CD release or proper digital remaster, but in 2011, after it went out of copyright in some areas, some LP transfers became available to buy digitally; I don't know which of the digital versions is the best, or if there's any difference between them.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Obscure Musicals: "Golden Boy"

This one is less obscure than some of the other shows I've written about on this site. It had a run that normally qualifies a musical as a hit: 569 performances. But it didn't make money, one of two shows in 1964 that ran over 500 performances and lost money (the other was What Makes Sammy Run?, which I've written about before). This had never happened before around 1961, and it was a sign of the new economic gap on Broadway, where the profits in a smash hit were greater than ever, but there was no money to be made in a musical that wasn't a smash.

The young producer of Golden Boy, Hillard Elkins, decided to make a musical from Clifford Odets's play. His idea was that if the Italian-American boxer from the original play were changed to an African-American, he could have a timely show, and a great vehicle for Sammy Davis Jr. Odets was signed to write the show, and for the score, Elkins got Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, who had done one hit (Bye Bye Birdie) and one flop (All American). According to Strouse's autobiography, Put On a Happy Face, one of Davis's conditions for signing was that he would have approval of every song in the show. "This was the kind of agreement," Strouse writes, "I would advise any author or composer to decline."

Odets died after writing the show but before it was ready to go out (Wikipedia says that he died during the tryout, but he actually died some time before), and it's a sign of Golden Boy's tryout problems that going into tryouts without a writer was not one of its top problems. After Paddy Chayefsky turned him down, Elkins got William Gibson (Two For the Seesaw, The Miracle Worker) to take over on the road. Gibson didn't care much for musicals, but he considered Odets a friend and mentor, and found the original play still powerful. During the tryout, while Gibson, Strouse and Adams were rewriting, the original director stepped down: Peter Coe, one of several hot British directors named Peter (Glenville and Brook and Hall were the others), fell out with Davis and left. Gibson asked Arthur Penn, who had staged The Miracle Worker and Two For the Seesaw, to take over, and Penn did; it was the only Broadway musical he ever got credit for directing, though he was fired from a couple of others.

Gibson's rewriting of the show required that it move farther away from Odets's play. Odets's original draft changed the race of the lead character but otherwise, apparently, stuck fairly close to what he had written earlier: a young man from the wrong side of the tracks, whose parents would prefer him to go into a culturally-respectable line of work, decides to get into boxing as a way of making a fast buck. Davis felt that the show was not timely enough, didn't deal forthrightly enough with contemporary race issues, and tiptoed around the interracial romance between his character and the character of Lorna (Paula Wayne). All of these criticisms were correct, and all of them Gibson and Penn tried to fix, trying to sharpen the interracial romance theme and take Davis's suggestions on how to make the show reflect the real black experience. By the time the show came in, it was the first musical that ever dealt with these issues in anything but a superficial way.

The big production number, "Don't Forget 127th Street," was the most conventional Broadway number in the show, and yet it was a sign of how different it was: a big song-and-dance set piece where the star is celebrated by the ensemble, it is sort of this show's "Hello, Dolly!," except that it's bitter, sardonic, and mocks the whole idea (not unfamiliar in musicals) of poor people being content with their lot and loving the slum where they live. This is a production number about, and against, the happy world of Broadway production numbers. It also shares a certain autobiographical resonance with other moments in the show; this one was seen almost as Davis's response to charges that he had sold out by "sipping champagne with high class white friends."

So Davis was influencing the show in the right direction a lot of the time, and he was, of course, Sammy Davis -- a big draw and an incredibly talented man, if a bit too old for the part. But the trouble with a star having veto power over everything that happens in a show is that stars have to be as concerned with their own image as with what's right for the show: the show will end, but the star's brand has to remain intact. So much of what happened in the show was geared to allow Davis to show off the things he could do, and that his fans expected him to do. Elliot Lawrence, the musical director, recalled that Davis's entourage kept telling him "you're not doing enough of this, you're not doing enough of that."

So tough and serious moments stood shoulder-to-shoulder with moments that could have come from Davis's nightclub act (his previous musical, Mr. Wonderful, had literally incorporated his club act as part of the evening). This seems to have gone on more as the show went on; a reference to Bing Crosby in one of the songs was turned into a Dean Martin shout-out at some point.

Strouse, who saw Golden Boy as his chance to really stretch himself as a composer, was frustrated with what he saw as Davis's smoothing-out of the music. Particularly Davis's first number, "Night Song," Strouse's own favorite song and possibly the best in the show. Strouse felt it was an art song, but Davis wouldn't sing it that way, threw out several arrangements, and finally wound up doing it as a fairly conventional I-want introductory song. "I couldn't help feeling that, somewhere along the way, my harmonies and rhythms were washed and dried out in that bright-shiny-money-back-guaranteed washing machine known as Sammy Davis Jr.," Strouse complained. "Was it my imagination, or did it sound like he could have been singing almost any song?" On the other hand, Strouse has also admitted that the number worked the way Davis did it, that people seemed to like it.

There was a lot else to like in the show, including an opening number that Penn helped craft. "We changed it into a number where someone was punching a bag to one rhythm, someone else was shadow-boxing to another rhythm, someone else was skipping rope, and so on," he recalled. As a number that relied almost entirely on rhythm -- musical, verbal and physical -- it was like a more serious version of "Rock Island" from The Music Man, and an acknowledged highlight of the show. The cast album can only preserve the audio portion of it, but at least that's something.

The final version that came into Broadway was one that didn't shy away from controversy or innovation, but it wasn't a unified show: it had been so frantically reworked during tryouts and provoked such divergent audience reactions (sometimes from night to night) that there was a little bit of everything thrown in. Also, Davis was working so hard on the show -- Penn, unlike Strouse, seems to have gotten along with him and admired his dedication to the character -- and had so much to do in the show, that his voice sometimes gave out. (This was not uncommon for club or recording stars in a Broadway theatre without amplification; the producer apparently did mike the show when Davis started encountering vocal trouble.) This was very apparent on the original cast album, but more about that in a second.

The show lives on through its score, which is, as I said, Strouse and Adams' attempt to get more ambitious than the light material they had done so well in Bye Bye Birdie (and not quite as well in All American). Strouse got to show off not only his great melodic gifts, but to write a type of moody jazz music that had hardly ever been heard in a conventional Broadway score. The result is not only the team's most ambitious score, but probably also their best overall. "Night Song" is one of the best I-want songs ever written (in any version). "I Wanna Be With You," the big love duet, is as un-contrived a statement of passion as I've ever heard in a musical: Broadway love songs tend toward cuteness and prettiness, but this is raw and powerful, a song for a love affair that won't end well. Billy Daniels, as the unsubtly named gangster "Eddie Satin," got another great nocturnal jazz song, "While the City Sleeps." There's a big angry gospel number in "No More," a number that's a bit overlong but makes brilliant serious use of a type of music that Broadway usually uses only for parody purposes. And there are some great songs in Strouse and Adams' lighter vein, like the ode to vice "Gimme Some."

The score does have a couple of problems that reflect the whole show being such a patchwork. One, again, it's not unified; Joe expresses himself in so many different styles -- heavy and light, jazz and pop -- that it feels sometimes like he's anything Davis wants him to be at that particular moment. And second, even as it's not unified, it's not varied; some of the songs overlap with each other in what they're like and what they're saying. (The female lead's two songs, "Lorna's Here" and "Golden Boy," are practically the same song.) It's still one of the most extraordinary scores of the '60s, not always a great time for Broadway scores that truly dazzled; this one did dazzle, and Strouse and Adams never quite matched it again.

The cast album is available on iTunes, though it's never existed in a really satisfying form. The strain in Davis's voice was very plain when he made the album, and exacerbated by the way cast albums were made (in one marathon recording session). He sounded hoarse on a lot of it. He later tried to fix this by re-recording a bunch of the numbers, but this had its own problems, because by then he was performing the songs more as himself and less in-character. Example:

It's the second version of the album that is available on iTunes and all CD releases; some collectors hang on to their versions of the original LP (which I unfortunately don't have, so I can't share it with you); but none of them do full justice to the score. It could use a new recording that separates the score and the character from Davis a bit -- an Encores! version in 2002, starring Alfonso Ribeiro, was very well-received.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Come to the Cabret

I just got back from seeing Hugo, a charming and frustrating experience in equal measure, though I suspect that the charm will stay with me longer than the frustration -- not least because the frustrating stuff mostly is from earlier in the film, while the second half leaves you with a warm feeling.

Still, that feeling would be even warmer if I didn't feel worn out by the time we get to the end, and this brings up the question of when a movie is too long. It's a common complaint about recent movies, so common that I almost feel like I'm jumping on the bandwagon by making it. And 128 minutes isn't that long. Still it felt long in this picture. Maybe it's not so much a question of length as economy. Some movies are extremely long but economical in their storytelling, in the sense that every scene performs an important function (not necessarily a plot function) and stops before it starts repeating itself or previous scenes.

I think you could argue that Hugo is an economical movie; certainly the scenes don't drag. But in the early part of the movie especially, I felt like there was some redundancy, with certain points being hit over and over again, points (like Hugo demanding his notebook) that made scenes overlap with each other. This kind of repetition would have troubled me even if the notebook had been as important to the story as this treatment made it appear to be.

Maybe some of the occasional sense of slackness also comes from the editing. This is one of the things I can never quite get used to, even though the idea that a two-shot is a special or unusual effect has been mainstream for most of my adult life. And Scorsese has been into heavy editing and massive amounts of coverage for a long time. Maybe it's the juxtaposition with silent movies that made me so conscious of all the cutting. But while it's supposed to help tighten up a scene (by giving the director and editor more control over pacing) sometimes I feel that constant back-and-forth cutting can slacken a scene by constantly changing the focal point of the scene. Also I think this may be more of an issue in 3D because every shot has more things to adjust to in terms of how much 3D is used, how much of the background is out of focus, and so on.

(Digression # 1: Gregg Toland died before 3D became operational, but in an article he wrote, he was very enthusiastic about it, much more than color, which he more or less dismissed as a gimmick. And when you remember how Toland liked to shoot, in long front-to-back takes, you can imagine what he might have done with 3D. I feel like the format is still looking for its own Gregg Toland, or at least someone to do new things with all the different levels of a 3D shot, instead of just putting all the burden of the shot on whoever happens to be delivering the line.)

(Digression # 2: There has been some recent discussion about over-editing as it applies to action sequences, which I'm starting to think almost has it backwards. Yes, there are some action sequences in today's film where you can't tell what's going on, but that's more about planning and staging than cutting; a lot of cutting in an action sequence can help to give it an emotional or visceral charge, as long as we know where everybody is. But constant cutting is sometimes a bigger problem in dialogue sequences, because those are the sequences where all the emphasis is on the actors' performance, and cutting on every line, or using every possible angle within a scene, can chop the performances into dust.)

All of that would be a minor issue for me if I had been swept up in Hugo's adventures -- as I mostly was, once the plot started to become clear. Early on, though, I wasn't caught up, and I think part of it may simply be the boy himself. Not so much Asa Butterfield in the part; maybe he could have been more fun, but the way the part is written doesn't provide a lot of opportunities for fun, and that's the point. Like so many children's stories about young boys in a big city (or a big chocolate factory), Hugo has a lead character who is a bit of a cipher. He does things, but he doesn't have a lot of personality, something that's all the clearer because the other kid character, played by Chloë Grace Moretz, is given plenty of personality and specific character traits. Hugo is more like Oliver Twist or the young David Copperfield (mentioned by Moretz's character). He has enough moxie to keep us following him, but his main purpose is to be the everykid through whom we experience the world.

Which is a familiar way to structure a story, and not an ineffective one. The problem for me is that for the first half-hour at least, I wasn't observing much through his eyes except a notebook and a cranky old man. Moretz's character is so much more alive -- with qualities of curiosity, intellectual pretension, and charm -- that she can make these things interesting, just by being interested in them. I don't think Hugo can, any more than David Copperfield can make things interesting by his mere presence. If something incredible is not happening around him, then nothing is happening. So by the time I got to what I found to be the interesting stuff (starting roughly around the point where Hugo and Isabelle go to see Safety Last) I felt like I had already spent too much time with this kid.

That all makes my reaction sound more negative than it is. The movie (and presumably the book) has a lot of interesting things to say that go beyond a simple tribute to the magic of the movies, though it certainly is the most expensive brief ever made for the importance of film preservation. It's also about technology and machinery, and the magical qualities they bring to everyday life. The movie is sort of a fantasy, or at least has a fantasy atmosphere, but the story keeps sticking to something resembling reality. So Scorsese almost tricks us into expecting the "magical" moment, the point where the weird stuff that happens will turn out to be supernatural, and what we see instead is that machines are magic: they connect us with the past, bring messages from dead people, give new hope to damaged people and turn people's lives around. Since a key plot point in the movie is World War I, where technology proved how destructive and horrible it could be, this story is like the flip side of that, the good and enchanting power of technology.

Add to that the technical virtuosity of the film (and nobody's ever denied Scorsese's abilities as a technician) and you have a movie that's intriguing and ever timely -- but especially timely now, when we're going through a more-marked-than-usual period of technological upheaval, and when we know that technology is going to change our lives but don't exactly know how yet. It's hard not to be inspired by the optimism of Hugo about technology as a tool for preserving, rather than obliterating, the past.

But, again, all of that is wrapped up in 128 minutes focusing on a hero who seems to me more a collection of plucky-little-orphan-boy characteristics than a character. Maybe I'll feel differently when I see it again, or maybe, with a better idea of where things are going, I'll enjoy the first part of the film more without the disorienting sense of wondering why we're being told all this. (Sometimes stories work better when they've been spoiled.) For now, I think Hugo incorporates some beautiful ideas and shots, which don't exactly add up to a story or scenes.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Back To 1988, By Way of 1986

One of the few sitcoms I watched at the time and then never revisited again (that I recall) was Dear John, the 1988 adaptation of a BBC sitcom from Only Fools and Horses creator John Sullivan. I watched the pilot when it first aired, because I was watching just about any sitcom on NBC at the time, and I thought it was funny enough to watch a few more times. But like many people, I didn't follow it after it moved away from Cheers; it survived for four years, but was never really a hit, and had almost no syndication life. It turned up here in reruns briefly a couple of years ago, following Taxi reruns on a channel that was showing filler during a transition to a new format. But I didn't watch it then either.

What got me watching it again was reading this article, "Anatomy of a Sitcom," from the New York Times during the show's first season. It really paints a bleak picture of what it's like to make a television sitcom, though that's pretty typical of the way television was profiled back then: behind-the-scenes looks at the making of TV were less reverential, because there was less reverence for TV than there is now. Even mass-market TV publications like TV Guide would often capture the self-doubts of TV producers and stars, or get into the sausage-factory nature of making network TV. The truth is probably somewhere in between that dark perspective and today's happier perspective, where increased media scrutiny (not to mention DVD commentaries) have trained showrunners to talk happier: you would rarely catch a showrunner doubting himself as openly as Ed. Weinberger does here.

That was what interested me about the show, because it was a Paramount TV production smack in the middle of a great period for Paramount TV -- which unfortunately has been folded into CBS and no longer exists. The TV division was still benefiting from the MTM people who jumped ship to do Taxi: Jim Brooks had left, but Glen and Les Charles were still there doing Cheers, and some of the writers they helped train would soon do Wings and Frasier. And then in the middle of this, Ed. Weinberger, another of the Taxi people, came back to Paramount to do a show with his Taxi star -- and the result wasn't a flop, just not anything special.

"Not anything special" describes a lot of Ed. Weinberger's work after Taxi, which is a bit surprising because he was such a talented guy. When he took over as producer of Mary Tyler Moore in the third season, he instantly infused it with a new energy. The creators of the show, James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, both had a background in single-camera sitcoms and (in Burns's case) advertising and animation, and they specialized in rather "soft" jokes. Weinberger was an experienced writer for stand-up comedians and variety shows, able to write hard jokes and big block comedy scenes, and he brought other writers for stand-ups and talk shows (including Bob Ellison and the great David Lloyd) onto the show. The mix of Weinberger and Brooks was what gave Mary Tyler Moore its shape from then on, and the same mix of hard and soft jokes was all over Taxi.

Weinberger's first act after Taxi was canceled was to create a talking-chimp sitcom, Mr. Smith; it was almost like a performance-art act of contempt for what sitcoms had become in the 1983-4 doldrums.

Then Weinberger seemingly bounced back in a big way by co-creating The Cosby Show. "Seemingly" because while he had co-creator credit, he wasn't with the show after the pilot. (Cosby, for whom Weinberger also created The Bill Cosby Show in the '70s, went through a lot of writers before settling on a few he could work with.) His projects after that seemed a bit scattershot, and often sounded better when you heard the cast list than when you saw the show. Mr. President, starring George C. Scott, probably should have been better than it was. And the Times article suggests that Amen was created by Weinberger almost as an attempt to thumb his nose at Cosby and prove he could do his own all-black show. Again, there was more potential in that subject (there are few American shows about the church, a subject that the British know how to mine for comedy) than Amen got out of it; it was all right in the first season because David Lloyd wrote half the episodes, but it was not a special show.

And then came Dear John. You can see what attracted Weinberger to the UK show: the story of a bunch of divorced people who hang out at a support group, it assembles a group of disparate losers headed by one guy whose pain is more raw than the others but who sees the world more clearly than they do. In other words, it's very Taxi. Here's the pilot of the original series:

And here's the U.S. remake, produced by Weinberger, Ellison and Peter Noah.

1 Pilot by carpalton

As you can see, once John gets to the meeting, the script is mostly the same as John Sullivan's version. (In fact, Sullivan's scripts were used almost verbatim for a few early episodes of the U.S. version.) The biggest difference is at the end. The original pilot just sort of ends on a big laugh -- a common way for UK sitcoms to end. The U.S. version feels a need to have some moment of resolution or hope, so it tacks on a new scene suggesting a) the possibility of sexual tension and b) a moment of redemptive connection between two supporting characters. It doesn't really work, and it may be a hint of why the U.S. version was never going to be on a level with Cheers and Taxi; the heart, the soft stuff, had to be tacked on and wasn't organic.

I may be over-thinking that, and I'd have to watch more of the episodes from later seasons to really know why this one was forgotten. I recall Jere Burns, as Kirk, being the one who made the most impact in the U.S. version; it's a showy part, and he played it more physically than the original actor. On the other hand, the leader of the group (a woman with an unhealthy interest in everyone's sex life) is less funny as a chirpy weirdo than the seemingly normal woman she was in the original. And Judd Hirsch was probably wrong for the part because he was too right for it, if that makes sense: the backstory of the character is close enough to Alex Rieger that he can't help seeming like he's playing the same guy all over again.

And that's how the show comes across in what I've seen of the original episodes: kind of like Taxi but not as sharp and fresh. Like a lot of filmed sitcoms from the late '80s -- Designing Women, Major Dad, Murphy Brown -- it also comes off as being at an uneasy transitional point between the MTM style (the foundational style at that time for any "grown-up" live-audience sitcom shot on film), and the faster-paced style that would soon come to dominate the filmed sitcom (with shorter running times, shorter scenes, and more stories per episode).

Weinberger did one other show while Dear John was running, a gruesome Look Who's Talking adaptation called "Baby Talk," where he was apparently very difficult to get along with: George Clooney fought with him and was dropped, Connie Sellecca left the show before it started, and finally Weinberger himself was let go after the first season. He made a comeback with a couple of other unsuccessful shows in the '90s. But if (like most TV producers) he wasn't able to keep producing hits indefinitely, the '80s and '90s were sitcom era that he did a lot to create -- through the shows he produced and the writers he hired, not to mention his role in keeping the sitcom alive with Cosby.