Friday, April 15, 2005

Things That Suck: Richie Rich Comics

When I was a kid, I didn't much care for real comic books; that is, the big, thin, wobbly ones that contained only a few stories each and got kept in plastic wrappers and sold for a fortune. No, I, and many other kids I knew preferred digests. They contained more stories, fewer ads for sea monkeys and magical bodybuilding systems, and were easier to carry around in your pocket. And most of the digests being sold at the time were of two comic-book series. One, of course, was Archie, the king of the digest format. The other was Richie Rich.

I enjoyed them enough at the time. But now, looking back on it, I feel very little gratitude for the enjoyment Richie Rich provided me as a tyke. Instead, I feel revulsion. Because Richie Rich comics sucked.

Now, maybe someone who knows more about this than I do can identify a time when they did not suck, or an artist or writer who did non-sucky work in the Harvey Comics Salt Mines. But I'm sticking to my guns on this one. They were some of the worst comics ever created.

Not because of the premise, exactly. Many people correctly point out that the premise of "Richie Rich" is kind of stomach-turning, since it's all about celebration of the worst kind of conspicuous consumption. Every story was basically just about how rich Richie was: how many cool toys he had, how big his house was, how his family had their own police force for the estate, known as the "Estate Police" (though unlike Daddy Warbucks, Richie's father never actually had his private police force kill anybody -- I think), how many servants he had, etc., etc., literally ad nauseam. But that's really harmless, an extention of the childhood fantasy of how a rich person, and indeed anyone who doesn't need to beg his parents for spending money, probably lives. And most of the things Richie did with his money were just slightly more high-tech versions of pleasures that are available even to non-rich kids; Richie's TV set may have taken up an entire wall, but as a small child, our TV set seemed pretty big to me, so it didn't seem like Richie's stuff was that much better. And the really exciting things Richie did, like getting kidnapped, having adventures, and, well, getting kidnapped, were things that could happen to kids without much money. So Richie Rich comics aren't in any danger of turning kids into crass materialists, at least, not any more so than they already are.

Richie Rich comics had awful artwork -- every kid was a puffy-cheeked monster who looked like he had never quite gotten over the mumps; every facial expression and pose was exactly the same for every emotion -- but that, too, wasn't quite the problem. Richie's sister publication Casper the Friendly Ghost -- they often did crossover stories where Richie met Casper and thought it was all a dream -- had equally bad artwork and exactly the same character design (as Bart and Lisa Simpson explained, Casper is the ghost of Richie after he got tired of the pursuit of money and killed himself), and while those comics are bad, they're not quite as bad as Richie.

No, the real problem with Richie Rich comics was that the stories were just some of the worst, stupidest, most intelligence-insulting things ever to find their way into the world of kiddie entertainment. I'm not saying that kiddie comics need to be brilliant or complex, but they need to make sense. Richie Rich comics never made sense, and you get the feeling that the writers figured that there was no need to make sense when they were writing for stupid kids.

There were two basic kinds of stupid nonsensical "Richie Rich" stories. The first was the "Look how rich he is" story. This usually consists of Richie showing off his wealth for some impressed visitor, who spends the whole story cooing about how cool it is to have a privately-owned rocket ship or a dog with dollar signs on him. Sometimes this visitor will turn out to be a "crook" (rule # 1 of the Richverse: the term "crook" must be used at least five times in a story, and no synonym -- not "criminal," not "robber" -- is acceptable) who tries and "comically" fails to steal Richie's vast wealth. These stories have no plot, and indeed, no actual premise beyond the premise that Richie is really, really rich.

Occasionally, for variety, Richie will face off in some battle-of-who's-richer with his "bad" cousin Reggie Van Dough or local siren Mayda Munny, who is constantly trying to steal Richie away from his girlfriend Gloria. Reggie and Mayda were supposed to be the bad greedy rich people who would make Richie look sympathetic by comparison. Of course the opposite is true. There's nothing more annoying than a rich and powerful person who tries to pretend he's not rich and powerful and instead pretends he's One of Us. The most infuriating thing about Richie is not that he's rich but that the writers keep trying to convince us that he's just another kid (or, as the comics' sub-title used to call him, "That poor little rich boy" -- yeah, poor, poor boy).

Which brings us to the worst part of the "Richie is really rich" stories: Freckles and Peewee, Richie's poor buddies. Freckles was a red-haired kid who looked like a cross between Pippi Longstocking and Alfalfa; Pee-Wee was a little kid who hadn't learned to talk but could strike badly-drawn stock poses. When we saw their home, it was a run-down shack where they lived, poor but happy, with their mother (I don't remember if they had a father). But any time Richie offered to, you know, slip them some cash, Freckles would reply "Oh, no, we'll help you only for friendship!" while the mute Peewee made a "no, no, no" gesture.

I guess the writers thought it would prove Richie wasn't a snob to have him hanging out with poor kids. In practice, it made you wonder why the hell Richie didn't say to hell with their refusals and use some of that money to fix up their hovel or, better yet, build them a new house. I remember a friend of mine in college got very angry about this. We were discussing the Richie comics we had both grown up reading, and when I brought up Freckles and Peewee, he went red-faced and sputtered: "Goddamn Freckles and Peewee! They lived in a shack. A shack! And that bastard Richie did nothing for them!" He got still angrier and I changed the subject.

Another Richie friend who turned up a lot was "Jackie Jokers," a kid who wanted to be a comedian and dressed like he was auditioning to take Peter Lawford's place in the Rat Pack. (Jackie also starred in his own stories in the '70s, mostly incredibly lame parodies of then-popular TV shows and movies; so Carrie became "Carry," starring Jackie as a kid who's always forced to Carry other kids' books, until he discovers he has telikinetic powers.) Sample story: Jackie and Richie go to Jackie's audition for a commercial. To test the auditioners, the director has the cue card guy hold one of the cards upside down to see how they react. The first guy auditioning completely loses it: "GASP! It's UPSIDE DOWN!" He doesn't get the job. Jackie, however, comes up with the brilliant solution of turning himself upside town to read the card. He gets the job and everybody's happy. This actually has slightly more of a plot than the average Richie Rich story.

The other kind of Richie story was the "adventure" story, where Richie solves a mystery or has some kind of close shave. This kind of thing should, by rights, have made sense; how much can you screw up a kiddie adventure story? You can when Richie's most frequent nemesis is an evil scientist with a giant lightbulb where his head should be. (Apparently there was a freak lab accident that caused his head to be replaced by said lightbulb, so he calls himself "Dr. N-R-Gee" and is seeking revenge on the world.) And when the other plots include these classics:

- Richie goes to a wrestling match where the chief bad guy wrestler, "Furious Fernando," is a big hulking guy who doesn't speak a word of English, but only speaks a language no one has ever heard of. When he's being pinned down in the match, he leans over to Richie and says a few words in his native language. Consulting with one of his Dad's researchers, Richie finds out that the lanugage is from a country known only as "U" because it's "unpronounceable." With the help of a huge computer and a dream, Richie and the researcher create a box that can automatically translate anything that's said in the mysterious language into English, and vice-versa. By training this box on the people who are guarding Fernando, Richie discovers that he's not really a wrestler, he's actually a nobleman from "U" who was tricked into becoming a wrestler by evil schemers who told him that his daughter had been kidnapped and taken to America. Little does he know that the girl is actually being held captive by her uncle, who used this whole wrestling thing to get Fernando out of the country. When Richie tells Fernando about this, he goes batshit and beats the heck out of the guards (in a G-rated way, though). At the end he is reunited with his daughter, the scheming uncle from "U" is punished, and Richie re-dubs big dude "Friendly Fernando."

- Richie is trying to find out the location of the treasure left behind by his great-uncle Oppus Rich. All he has to go on is the fact that Oppus donated a Chinese junk to a museum, and the message he left in lieu of a will: "My vision -- top of treasure junk will not be." Finally Richie realizes that "My vision" means "Oppus's sight," which sounds like "Opposite," and if you take the opposite of the rest of that sentence, it's "bottom of junk treasure will be." Realizing that the treasure is in the bottom of the junk, Richie's dad congratulates him for figuring out a riddle that no one in the world had ever been able to solve.

Richie Rich's comic book career has been over for some years, but Macaulay Culkin played him in a live-action movie. Even Macaulay Culkin deserves better.

TV Writer Commentaries

I see that the DVD extras for the second season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (release date, July 26) include two commentary tracks with one of the show's most prolific writers in its first few seasons -- and one of the relatively few women in sitcom writing at that time -- Treva Silverman. It'll be interesting to hear what she has to say about the show, or, rather, it might be interesting. Commentaries with TV writers can be hit-or-miss because they worked on the episodes so fast and furiously that the structure, theme and content of an episode may not have been a conscious process. I don't mean that a good TV episode doesn't have good structure or a theme to it; I just mean that whereas movie writers and directors have time to sit and ponder about how to structure a movie, and therefore can tell you later what they were trying to do, whereas a half-hour sitcom episode doesn't get that sort of analysis, either before or after it's made.

The result is that many commentaries on TV episodes just consist of the commentators describing what's happening on the screen: they haven't seen the episode in years and they're just refreshing their memories, with the result that they don't seem to know much more about it than we do. Who would have guessed, before the Seinfeld DVDs came out, that Larry David would be so uninteresting when talking about his shows?

A surprisingly good TV-on-DVD commentary is delivered by Garry Marshall on an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show (season 4); he really analyzes every aspect of what it takes to make a scene or a joke funny, right down to the question of whether the actors' loud clothing detracts from the jokes. Alan Spencer, the creator of Sledge Hammer, comes off as thinking he's much more clever than he actually is (like the show itself), but gives a lot of good information and analysis, and of course Joss Whedon is a good and smart commentator. Otherwise, I can't think of a lot of really outstanding TV-on-DVD commentaries, but there are a lot I haven't heard, and a lot of the shows I collect on DVD don't have commentaries.

At this point I think it would make sense to do what is often done for older films and have critics do commentaries on TV-on-DVD sets, filling in the background of the show and analyzing it in the way that an outsider can often do better than someone who was on the inside. I'm told Three's Company has some commentaries by the guy who wrote a book on the show (yes, such a thing exists), but I haven't heard of any other examples of this.

There are also commentaries by TV directors. Since TV directors often tend to be traffic managers -- telling the actors where to stand, getting the script shot quickly -- they aren't often terribly enlightening either, but at least the director is more likely than the writer to have real, immediate memories of how the episode was made. And one hopes that if Bonanza ever comes out on DVD they'll get Robert Altman to comment on a few of his episodes.

By the way, the extras for season 2 of MTM were produced two years ago, before the first season even came out and sold disappointingly. While I suspect that season 2 will sell quite a bit better -- it's almost half the price of season 1, for starters -- and justify the release of later seasons, I wouldn't expect them to have as many extras, if indeed they have any. Too bad, because it was in season 3 that The Mary Tyler Moore Show really got good. Mostly because they started shifting the focus away from Mary Tyler Moore, but I've dealt with that before.

The Washington What Now?

A short, very short post, just a simple point to make:

I was an Expos fan. Unlike the Blue Jays, who were sort of worth rooting for when they were winning but usually seemed as sterile and bland as their stadiums, the Expos really seemed to be part of Canadian culture. Even their ludicrous attempt to put a retractable roof on Olympic Stadium, the results of which were described by a magazine as looking like a Martian spaceship had landed overhead, seemed endearing. To be an Expos fan was to be a fan of Canada itself, where being slightly second-rate is part of our uniqueness.

And therefore, I hate the Washington Nationals and hope that they suck as bad as the Washington Senators did. (Though even the Washington Senators won three pennants and a World Series. The Expos won one lousy division title in a split season when they didn't even have the best record in the division.)

May the curse of Youppi be upon them.

That is all.

Better Than Most

Another entry in my series of "Stuff I wrote but didn't use anywhere else." This song lyric was written as an exercise (again, a self-imposed exercise; I've never been much of a workshop guy, though I probably should have been). The idea here was to try and write an opening number for a musical about contemporary Hollywood, so I decided that such a number would be set at a bus station, where the main characters, on their way to Los Angeles, would meet other people who were on their way from L.A. It was a longish thing, but I kind of like it because it's an upbeat song about a downbeat subject (which I much prefer to downbeat songs about, well, anything), so I'll post it here.

Better Than Most

Verse

When I moved to L.A. I was only equipped
With a rag and a bone and a comedy script,
And my script made the rounds,
My script made the rounds.
While I worked at a Starbucks for minimal pay,
My script caught the eye of an agent a day,
And the agents would constantly write me to say:
“No.”
So I stayed up at night and I wrote some more specs
With a little more punch and a little more sex,
And my scripts made the rounds,
Those scripts made the rounds.
And I pitched my ideas to a studio head,
And I pitched and I pitched till my throat was all red,
Then the head shook his head, and you know what he said?
“No.”
So
I left L.A.
On the next available bus,
And I’m A-OK,
Not inclined to grumble or fuss –
‘Cause I’ve got so much to discuss!

OTHER EX-WRITERS: Just like us!

Refrain 1

Although I didn’t achieve what I hoped I would,
Although I wasn’t the toast of the Coast,
I got a waiter to say that my scripts were good –
So I did better than most,
Better than most.
I never dated a star with a five-inch waist
Or had a fat millionaire as my host,
But I bumped into a star and I wasn’t maced,
So I did better than most,
Better than most.
I got a look at the sign on the hill,
I got a spin in the Hollywood mill;
They never made me a Hollywood shill,
I wish they would, they never will –
But still,
I got a look at a world full of pills and pools,
So I have plenty of reasons to boast.
I may have wasted my time at those screenplay schools,
I may be heading back home to where boredom rules,
They didn’t give me the breaks,
I didn’t have what it takes,
And yet with all my mistakes,
I did better,
Better than most.

Refrain 2

I dreamed of writing a film and a tell-all tome
About how much or how little it grossed.
I wrote a film that was made in a porn star’s home,
And that was better than most,
Better than most.
I never read stupid jokes off the yellow cards
At some pathetic celebrity roast.
I got ejected from somebody’s roast by guards,
That’s really better than most,
Better than most.
I sat and wrote till I looked like a wreck,
And then I handed an agent my spec,
I also handed my landlord a check,
The spec came back, so did the check –
Oh, heck.
I never talked to a tabloid reporter guy
About how I and my friends overdosed,
So now I’ve nothing to lose, and I’m clean and dry
Except for dust on my shoes and a misty eye,
I didn’t meet with success,
I didn’t bully the press,
But I was there, so I guess
I did better,
Better than most.

Interlude

I didn’t cut it, but it doesn’t rankle,
I missed the plate, but still, I took a throw.
This town hates poets, so it’s time to ankle,
But at least I’ve got my Guild card, just for show.
They paid me as a gofer, then a gaffer,
The writers called me “whatsisface” and “creep.”
But still, I know a sitcom’s called a “laffer,”
And that info makes my parents think I’m deep.
So I know what I can, and I know what I can't;
I'm the almost, the could've, the Oscar Levant.
Well, I don't want to get off on a rant:

Coda

They say the flame of your dream should stay lit,
They say defeat isn't fit to admit,
They say a lot of ridiculous shit,
Here's what I say to all of it:
I quit.
So while they gave all the Oscars to trendy hacks,
And I was gypped, getting pipped at the post,
At least my soul’s not a trademark of Mirimax,
And so I'll thank you to spare me your quips and cracks;
I've got a job that I hate,
I've got a bi-monthly date,
I've got the usual fate,
But please allow me to state
I did better,
Better than most,
Quite a bit better than most.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

The Man With the Moving Camera

Watching Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street the other day, I noted that Fuller was extremely fond of a type of camera movement that wasn't very common before he came along: the super-fast tracking shot, where the camera very quickly moves in and up on a character, going from long shot to close shot in seconds. This kind of fast camera movement became a specialty of Martin Scorsese, a Fuller admirer. It is, like Fuller's movies themselves, quick, punchy, unsubtle and exciting; instead of the decorous, elaborate camera moves favored by a Vincente Minnelli, Fuller just puts the camera on wheels and shoves it in his characters' faces. His camera moves the way his scripts sound, if that makes any sense.

Camera movement is often used just as just another piece of film grammar; many "classic" directors, especially those who had started in the '10s or '20s (when elaborate camera moves could be rather difficult, technically), preferred to move the camera only to call attention to something in a scene or to emphasize a character's reaction, e.g. character X sees something he doesn't like, and the camera moves in on him to show that this is a big deal for him. Ford, Hawks, Lubitsch, Renoir and DeMille are just a few of the famous directors who either don't move the camera much or move it only for fairly obvious reasons (a character moves, and the camera moves with him).

Then there are the directors who like to plan big, technically difficult camera movements that require elaborate rehearsal on the part of the technicians and the actors. Vincente Minnelli is probably the king of this type of director -- the turning-out-the-lights scene in Meet Me in St. Louis, where the camera moves around an entire house in one uninterrupted take, required an unbelievable amount of rehearsal for cameramen, lighting people, and actors alike -- though F.W. Murnau is usually credited as being the father of the camera movement movement, and Max Ophuls was the director whose use of camera movement was most influential on directors like Minnelli and Jacques Demy.

And then there are some directors who almost seem to have a patent on certain kinds of camera moves. Steven Spielberg has done a certain type of move so often -- which can roughly be described as the camera moving in on a character while also moving down, so the character somehow seems increased in stature -- that it is indelibly associated with him; in the pilot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer when he needed exactly that kind of movement in a shot of Buffy, Joss Whedon asked the pilot's director to "give me the Spielberg," and the director knew exactly what he meant without another word being said.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Bob Has a Button-Down Mind...

Would you believe that as I write this, the first season of The Bob Newhart Show is # 9 on Amazon's list of top-selling DVDs? Way to go, Bob.

The quality of the set isn't anything special. The prints in the DVD set of the first season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show looked significantly better than I'd ever seen most of these episodes before; by contrast, the print quality of the Bob Newhart episodes vary heavily from episode to episode: some look very good, others not. It's all right, and the episodes are all uncut, but you're not likely to be blown away by it; it's a shame that better prints aren't available, because there are a few Bob Newhart episodes that still exist in first-class prints (the fourth-season episode "Death of a Fruit Man" was one of them, as I recall), and they give an idea of how good the show would look and sound with restored picture and sound. Oh, well.

The first season is a bit bland at times, I think -- it's very heavily dependent on the same kind of low-key, polite humor that characterized the first few seasons of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The show really hit its stride around the fourth season, when the creators, David Davis and Lorenzo Music, left the show and were replaced as showrunners by the young team of Jay Tarses and Tom Patchett: they started to go for less polite humor, wackier plots, more cartoonish characterization -- Howard Borden was somewhat normal in the first season; by the end of the series he was of sub-Homer-Simpson intelligence -- and a somewhat darker tone. (The above-mentioned "Death of a Fruit Man," where one of Bob's patients dies a bizarre death, is a funnier and darker examination of death and our reactions to it than Mary Tyler Moore's "Chuckles Bites the Dust.")

The darker humor came from Tarses, one of the most iconoclastic people ever to work in the TV writing business (Lynne Farr, one of the writers on Bob Newhart, recalls working with him here), but it also brought the show closer to Newhart's strengths, as a lot of his standup is pretty dark if you examine it closely: it's full of driving instructors who literally fear for their lives, miserable accountants who spent 50 years coming to work drunk, kiddie-show hosts who encourage kids to put sponsors on a blacklist... as Newhart himself has said, he tends to do routines where he plays people he doesn't like very much.

The weakest character on the show, I think, was Jerry, played by Peter Bonerz; in the original pilot (which was supposed to be included with this DVD set, but wasn't), he was a psychiatrist, and they made him a dentist in the series proper -- obviously inspired by that other sitcom Jerry, Jerry Helper on The Dick Van Dyke Show -- but they never gave him much of a characterization, and his episodes are often the weakest. Peter Bonerz had an improv comedy background, but on Bob Newhart he didn't get all that much to do that was funny, and as the show went on he started to concentrate more on directing, as his character was de-emphasized in favor of Bob's patients. There's an article that discusses the show with Bonerz, though the article is more about the current state of the sitcom than it is about the show itself.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Spring Tumble Out of the Tree

Yip Harburg, one of the greatest of American song lyricists, is getting his own postage stamp.

I've blogged about Harburg several times before; his lyrics are a unique combination of playfulness, poetry and satire. This post features quotes from a few of my favorite Harburg lyrics. Here are a few other notable ones:

From Flahooley, Harburg's bizarre satire on American postwar commercialism -- the story of a laughing doll that becomes a sensation on the market, and a magical genie who, not realizing that scarcity = value, ruins the toy industry by magically making enough dolls for everyone. This song, "The World is Your Balloon," with music by Sammy Fain, has some similarities to Harburg's famous lyric for "It's Only a Paper Moon." But it's still one of my favorite Harburg lyrics; note the fact that while it's a fanciful song, the imagery is absolutely concrete -- the fantasy is all grounded in tangible physical images, whereas most lyricists can't even create tangible images when writing about the real world:

Love, love, when you're in love,
The world is your balloon.
Rain is confetti rain,
The moon's a lantern moon.
Glow-worms are footlights in the clover,
For they know
Life's a bang-up show;
Why should it irk us?
Ain't it a circus?
Yours is the gate that swings
To clowns and tinkerbells;
Yours is the hope on wings,
The heart on carousels.
Yours is the earth to play with
On a summer afternoon,
For when girl loves boy
The world is a toy balloon.


My favorite Harburg satirical song is "Push de Button" from Jamaica (which I wrote about at greater length in my post on Harold Arlen on Broadway), a sharp but wonderfully good-natured calypso-flavored sendup of the '50s craze for automation. Some excerpts:

Push de button,
Up de elevator,
Push de button,
Out de orange juice.
Push de button,
From refrigerator
Come banana shortcake and frozen goose.
...Push de button,
Out come Pagliacci,
Push de button,
Also Liberace.
Push de button!
Wanna rock n' roll?
Push de button!
Pay de toll?
Push de button, push de button!
What an isle! What an isle!
Squeeze de tube and get Pepsodent smile!
Crack de bank, rob de mail,
Turn de knob and get Muzak in jail!
Push de button,
Don't be antiquated,
Get de baby
All pre-fabricated.
Push --
Apply de little finger
And push de button!


Another mock-calypso song from Jamaica contains a punchline that always makes me laugh, with its perfect play on words:

De man he love de woman, de woman she
Swear to love de man everlastingly,
What make de happy promise in "Oh, Promise Me"
End up in "Oh, Promiscuity?"


And for a short, simple, affecting song (with clever but subtle use of internal rhymes), you can't beat "Let's See What Happens" from Darling of the Day:

Let's give the waltz a chance, let's dance, and let's see what happens,
Let us carouse while Strauss caresses the strings.
Even the shy may fly on musical wings,
They say music can do the most unusual things.
Let's take a step, or two, or three, and let's see what happens,
Let us pretend, my friend, it's only a spree.
And if a great adventure happens to happen,
Won't we be happy it happened to you and me.


So here's to "Yipper" and his new status as an addition to stamp collections everywhere.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Gilbert & Sullivan On Iraq

Via the Washington Monthly Blog, this surprisingly good article in Harper's Magazine ("All scolding, all the time"), on the mistakes made in the reconstruction of Iraq, got me to thinking about Gilbert and Sullivan.

Let me explain. The article, by Canadian and all-around scold Naomi Klein, is about the way the reconstruction was planned and executed based on ideology, on the dream of making Iraq a national guinea-pig for conservative ideas about how to run an economy:

Governments, even neoconservative governments, rarely get the chance to prove their sacred theory right: despite their enormous ideological advances, even George Bush's Republicans are, in their own minds, perennially sabotaged by meddling Democrats, intractable unions, and alarmist environmentalists.

Iraq was going to change all that. In one place on Earth, the theory would finally be put into practice in its most perfect and uncompromised form. A country of 25 million would not be rebuilt as it was before the war; it would be erased, disappeared. In its place would spring forth a gleaming showroom for laissez-faire economics, a utopia such as the world had never seen. Every policy that liberates multinational corporations to pursue their quest for profit would be put into place: a shrunken state, a flexible workforce, open borders, minimal taxes, no tariffs, no ownership restrictions.


As the rest of the article tells, it didn't quite work out that way. But there's already been a story of what happens when a group of people from the most powerful country in the world goes to a smaller country and tries to implement a lot of utopian economic theories. And it's Gilbert and Sullivan's next-to-last operetta, Utopia Limited.

This was Gilbert and Sullivan's "reunion" work, written in 1893 after they had been semi-officially split up for several years. It was a modest success but hasn't been much revived since: it's not as tuneful as Sullivan's earlier scores, has a poorly constructed libretto with too many sub-plots that never pay off, and has very few really good roles. But the basic story may be the sharpest satire Gilbert ever created, a remarkably astute send-up of colonialism and the misguided assumptions of both the colonisers and the colonised.

The setting, as the title implies, is Utopia, an island where nothing ever happens and the natives live all day "in lazy languor." The island is ruled by the benevolent despot King Paramount, whose power is checked by two "wise men," Scaphio and Phantis, who are empowered to have the King blown up if he gets out of line (Tarara, the "Public Exploder," stands by waiting to do that job). As the play begins, Paramount and his have become obsessed with England; they have heard so much of its greatness and superiority that they all want to be like the English... or, at least, what they have heard about the English:

CALYNX: England has made herself what she is because, in that favored land, every one has to think for himself. Here we have no need to think, because our monarch anticipates all our wants, and our political opinions are formed for us by the journals to which we subscribe. Oh, think how much more brilliant this dialogue would have been, if we had been accustomed to exercise our reflective powers! They say that in England the conversation of the very meanest is a coruscation of impromptu epigram!


To make the country more English, Paramount has banned the native language, insisting that all subjects speak English; he has hired a proper English governess, Lady Sophy, to teach his youngest daughters how to be demure and shy, and his oldest daughter, Zara, is returning from England with a collection of English officers and officials who will show Utopia how to become "Anglicized." When Zara enters, accompanied by the British Captain Fitzbattleaxe, Paramount is shocked to find the Utopian maidens ogling Fitzbattleaxe's soldiers:

KING: Your Troopers appear to be receiving a troublesome amount of attention from those young ladies. I know how strict you English soldiers are, and I should be extremely distressed if anything occurred to shock their puritanical British sensitiveness.

FITZBATTLEAXE: Oh, I don't think there's any chance of that.

KING: You think not? They won't be offended?

FITZBATTLEAXE: Oh no! They are quite hardened to it. They get a good deal of that sort of thing, standing sentry at the Horse Guards.

KING: It's English, is it?

FITZBATTLEAXE: It's particularly English.

KING: Then, of course, it's all right. Pray proceed, ladies, it's particularly English.


Zara introduces the six officials she has brought with her from England to assist in the reconstruction of Utopian society:

ZARA: With a view to remodelling the political and social institutions of Utopia, I have brought with me six Representatives of the principal causes that have tended to make England the powerful, happy, and blameless country which the consensus of European civilization has declared it to be. Place yourself unreservedly in the hands of these gentlemen, and they will reorganize your country.


The six British expatriates are Fitzbattleaxe, the military man; Sir Bailey Barre, the lawyer:

A marvelous Philologist who'll undertake to show
That "yes" is but another and a neater form of "no."


Lord Dramaleigh, the former Lord Chamberlain, whose specialty is in purging all "indecency" from the stage; the County Councillor who purges indecent behaviour from the streets; the naval officer, Captain Corcoran (a cameo from H.M.S. Pinafore), and most importantly, Mr. Goldbury, the stockbroker, whose dream is to take the British principles of corporatism and limited liability and apply them to an entire society. Goldbury explains the basic theory of the limited-liability corporation:

If you come to grief, and creditors are craving
(For nothing that is planned by mortal head
Is certain in this Vale of Sorrow--saving
That one's Liability is Limited),--
Do you suppose that signifies perdition?
If so, you're but a monetary dunce--
You merely file a Winding-Up Petition,
And start another Company at once!
Though a Rothschild you may be
In your own capacity,
As a Company you've come to utter sorrow--
But the Liquidators say,
"Never mind--you needn't pay,"
So you start another company to-morrow!


Goldbury's idea is for Utopia to be governed on the corporation principle: not only will the whole country be run as a corporation, but every individual in Utopia should become a corporation. Paramount has reservations, but comes around when Goldbury tells him that this is his chance to be even more Anglicized than the English:

KING:
Well, at first sight it strikes us as dishonest,
But if its's good enough for virtuous England--
The first commercial country in the world--
It's good enough for us...
And do I understand that Great Britain
Upon this Joint Stock principle is governed?

MR. GOLDBURY:
We haven't come to that, exactly--but
We're tending rapidly in that direction.
The date's not distant.

KING
(enthusiastically) We will be before you!
We'll go down in posterity renowned
As the First Sovereign in Christendom
Who registered his Crown and Country under
The Joint Stock Company's Act of Sixty-Two.


Act two takes place after the six Englishmen (known as the "Flowers of Progress") have acted on their plans for the Anglicization of Utopia. As Fitzbattleaxe explains, because they are free from the constraints of democracy and can enact whatever policies they want, they have been able to put into practice all the brilliant ideas they could never sell to England:

FITZBATTLEAXE: Freed from the trammels imposed upon them by idle Acts of Parliament, all have given their natural talents full play and introduced reforms which, even in England, were never dreamt of!

ZARA: But perhaps the most beneficent changes of all has been effected by Mr. Goldbury, who... has applied the Limited Liability principle to individuals, and every man, woman, and child is now a Company Limited with liability restricted to the amount of his declared Capital! There is not a christened baby in Utopia who has not already issued his little Prospectus!

FITZBATTLEAXE: Marvelous is the power of a Civilization which can transmute, by a word, a Limited Income into an Income Limited.


As the Flowers of Progress explain in a catchy number, a parody of the Christy Minstrels, they have made Utopia into the England that they always hoped England would be:

It really is surprising
What a thorough Anglicizing
We have brought about--Utopia's quite another land;
In her enterprising movements,
She is England--with improvements,
Which we dutifully offer to our mother-land!


In the number, and in several of the dialogue scenes that follow, we learn that the Flowers of Progress have sold their policies to the Utopians by assuring them that they are all the official policies of England, whether they are or not: "Are you aware that Sir Bailey Barre has introduced a law of libel by which all editors of scurrilous newspapers are publicly flogged--as in England?" All seems well for the Utopians, though, and especially for Paramount: Scaphio and Phantis no longer have any power over him, because as a corporation, he cannot be blown up: "You may wind up a limited company, but you cannot conveniently blow it up."

But in the final scene, Scaphio and Phantis strike back, leading the people in revolt against the Flowers of Progress. As Scaphio explains, the reconstruction of Utopia has made a mess of everything:

Our pride and boast--the Army and the Navy--
Have both been reconstructed and remodeled
Upon so irresistible a basis
That all the neighboring nations have disarmed--
And War's impossible! Your County Councillor
Has passed such drastic Sanitary laws
That all the doctors dwindle, starve, and die!
The laws, remodeled by Sir Bailey Barre,
Have quite extinguished crime and litigation:
The lawyers starve, and all the jails are let
As model lodgings for the working-classes!
In short--Utopia, swamped by dull Prosperity,
Demands that these detested Flowers of Progress
Be sent about their business, and affairs
Restored to their original complexion!


Paramount and Zara are baffled. They have tried to make Utopia into a perfect replica of England, but they have failed; something is clearly missing. Then Sir Bailey Barre reminds Zara of what it will take to make Utopia just as crime-ridden, diseased and poverty-infested as England: democracy.

ZARA: Of course! Now I remember! Why, I had forgotten the most essential element of all!

KING: And that is?---

ZARA: Government by Party! Introduce that great and glorious element--at once the bulwark and foundation of England's greatness--and all will be well! No political measures will endure, because one Party will assuredly undo all that the other Party has done; and while grouse is to be shot, and foxes worried to death, the legislative action of the country will be at a standstill. Then there will be sickness in plenty, endless lawsuits, crowded jails, interminable confusion in the Army and Navy, and, in short, general and unexampled prosperity!

ALL: Ulahlica! Ulahlica!

KING: ...From this moment Government by Party is adopted, with all its attendant blessings; and henceforward Utopia will no longer be a Monarchy Limited, but, what is a great deal better, a Limited Monarchy!


The work ends with a chorus in praise of the greatness of England, or, at least, the greatness of its self-made reputation:

Oh, may we copy all her maxims wise,
And imitate her virtues and her charities;
And may we, by degrees, acclimatize
Her Parliamentary peculiarities!
By doing so, we shall in course of time,
Regenerate completely our entire land--
Great Britain is the monarchy sublime,
To which some add (but others do not) Ireland.
Such, at least, is the tale
Which is born on the gale,
From the island which dwells in the sea.
Let us hope, for her sake
That she makes no mistake--
That she's all she professes to be!


Maybe you can see now why Shaw claimed that he enjoyed Utopia Limited more than any previous Gilbert and Sullivan work; in its slightly bitter tone and its portrayal of England as a seriously fouled-up country spreading its dysfunctions around the world, this is the hardest-edged satire Gilbert ever wrote.

It's also one of the more insightful portrayals of colonialism, and the problems with colonialism, that has ever hit the stage. Most attacks on colonialism (as I can attest from having sat through endless college English classes where poor Rudyard Kipling was ripped to shreds) portray it as a straightforward case of exploitation: the bad colonists come in to plunder the good natives at the point of a gun. There's something to that, of course, but there's more, and this is what Gilbert gives us in Utopia Limited: many colonialists were people who were frustrated, fed-up or bored with their home countries and wanted to go somewhere else and try the things they couldn't try at home. The Flowers of Progress all have their pet ideas about how to build the perfect society, but they can't put them into practice in England because democracy, with its inherent gridlock, keeps getting in the way. The solution: go to a non-democratic country, tell them you're bringing progress, and use that country to carry out all the plans that a democracy would never enact. The country may be called Utopia, but the Flowers of Progress are the real utopians. And they are trading on the near-mythical status of their country -- the awe with which the Utopians have heard of British power and prosperity -- to gain support for their utopian schemes.

Flash-forward to today, and it's not surprising that many of the most enthusiastic Flowers of Progress are people who are, to some extent, fed up with their own country and the obstacles it places in the way of utopian schemes. As that article makes clear, what is loosely referred to as "colonialism" is as much about ideology as anything else. And the final goal, of course, is to establish Government by Party, which will undo everything and make things run as inefficiently as they do back home.

So, college professors, throw out your colonialism textbooks and teach Utopia Limited instead. The D'Oyly Carte company recorded it sometime in the mid-'70s, though I don't remember whether the recording is still in print.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Hello, Leon

There have been a couple of interesting posts recently on Leon Schlesinger, the founder and producer of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. Amid Amidi has a good post on why Schlesinger was the Best Executive Ever, and Mark Evanier has an equally good post qualifying Amid's praise (Schlesinger gave his artists lots of freedom, but not much money).

I can't add much to the discussion except that I don't think Amid is quite right to say that Schlesinger wasn't one of those executives who "insist on putting their 'personal stamp' on everything that gets produced." Or, at least, despite Schlesinger's general willingness to leave his artists alone, he did put his personal stamp on the cartoons, in the sense that the kinds of cartoons the studio made were very reflective of his own personal taste. Bob Clampett goes into this a bit in the documentary "The Boys From Termite Terrace" (included on the first Looney Tunes DVD set), where he mentions that some elements of the WB cartoon style developed because Schlesinger liked a fast pace, big punchlines followed by an iris-out -- he liked funny cartoons and he encouraged his staff to pack their cartoons with gags.

There's a famous story that after Chuck Jones had been a director for several years, mostly making slow-paced faux-Disney cartoons, Schlesinger called him in and ordered him to "make funny cartoons like Clampett's" or he'd be fired (which might explain why Jones was the only WB director to consistently badmouth Schlesinger in interviews). Assuming this or something like it happened, that's a clear-cut case of executive interference: the big Philistine executive calls the idealistic young director in and tells him to stop making his dream projects and make something more commercial. We don't think of it as executive interference because nobody ever seems to remember the times when interference makes things better. (Jean Renoir, asked whether he resented the interference of producers, replied that, no, "I like interference. It promotes discussion, and discussion often improves your work.") But Schlesinger had a house style and he wanted people to stick to it and not just do their own thing. Now, that house style was developed in part by letting people like Tex Avery and Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones experiment and do their own thing, but once that style was set, nobody had so much freedom that he could just decide to abandon it and try something entirely different.

However, I'm not saying that interference always makes cartoons better or that Schlesinger interfered as much as today's executives. The new breed of TV/movie executive often tends to be someone who believes, without any justification, that he or she is a creative force in the making of the films or shows; that's why a lot of their changes are nit-picky things that don't really make any commercial sense, but do make sense in terms of their overall "vision" for a work they believe to be their own. The Schlesinger type of executive, by contrast, doesn't pretend that the work is his (at least while it's being made; after it's finished, he hogs all the credit in public); he just wants the artists to stick to making the kind of stuff he likes. And the crassly commercial executive, who wants to make money and keep the theatre distributors happy, is generally all right too, even if he'll sometimes gut a project to suit the prevailing commercial trends. It's the sensitive, artistic executive that you've got to watch out for.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Fox Blows its Cover

I had a longer post about the show Remington Steele that got torpedoed by the accursed Blogger. When you get a "This page cannot be displayed" sign after trying to post something you didn't save, you actually get the physical sensation of seeing a half-hour of your time go down the toilet.

Anyway, shorter Remington Steele post: it was a better comedy/romance/mystery than Moonlighting, less smug and with better lead actors, and the DVD cover for the first season is probably the worst cover ever for all sorts of reasons, including the fact that it has nothing to do with what the show was about or what kind of character Pierce Brosnan played. (He was the bumbling sidekick, the Maxwell Smart to Stephanie Zimbalist's Agent 99; anybody looking for a Bond-like hero is going to sit there wondering why they didn't pick up something intelligent and meaningful like Die Another Day instead.)

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Mrs. Jones!

Someday I'd like to try and trace the influence of the comedy team of Olsen and Johnson, and in particular the film version of their stage show Hellzapoppin. I suspect that, for a comedy team most people haven't heard of and a movie that's never been on home video (due to rights problems), it's been incredibly influential. You can see their influence in Mad magazine; you can certainly see it in Mel Brooks, who named a character in Blazing Saddles after them; and bits from Hellzapoppin keep popping up here and there as tributes from people who saw it and were blown away.

Here's one example: Ten years ago, there was an episode of Animaniacs that used a variation on a gag from Hellzapoppin (Amid Amidi will no doubt consider this further proof that Animaniacs was an unoriginal piece of hackwork). I speculated online that the writers must have been paying homage to Hellzapoppin. And in response, I was told that, yes, one of the producers brought in a print of Hellzapoppin to show the writers the kind of humor he wanted them to go for, and the writers fell in love with it.

Now, Hellzapoppin is not a "great" comedy by most definitions of the term. Olsen and Johnson had very little individuality as performers, never really developed strong characterizations for themselves (that's part of the reason why they didn't last long in films), and the big laughs tend to come from their reactions to the crazy people who pop in and out. The studio insisted that the movie have a plot (the stage show was a revue), and the plot drags down the comedy, as the stars themselves point out. Most of the really inspired stuff happens in the first ten minutes; indeed, some admirers of the film would just as soon lose everything that happens after those first ten minutes, when the story kicks in and the picture gets more normal. And Olsen and Johnson were heavily reliant on old, old, old jokes; the New York critics loathed the stage version of Hellzapoppin for daring to pollute the Broadway stage with the leftovers of Vaudeville and Burlesque.

But Olsen and Johnson's films, the best moments in them anyway, can be pretty stunning. In part because they actually tried to do movie comedy, comedy that would make fun of the conventions of movies: talking to the projectionist, arguing with the director, gunning the romantic couple down with a machine gun (that's the end of Crazy House, a favorite of Quentin Tarantino). Unlike the Marx Brothers and other comedy teams who basically just brought their stage act to the screen, Olsen and Johnson are aware that they're in a new medium and they're out to demolish it. But they love it too; in fact, they -- or their writers -- are movie buffs, and their movies brim with references to other movies at a time when this sort of thing was still relatively new. Who else but O&J, in Hellzapoppin, would spoil the ending of Citizen Kane just after that movie had come out? The only other films of the era that have so many references to other movies are the Warner Brothers cartoons (and, as it happens, the only other movie of that era with a Citizen Kane reference is the WB cartoon "Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarves").

I think my favorite gag in Hellzapoppin, apart from the Kane joke, is the variation on the old "That's good, that's bad" staple:

OLSEN (speaking into a telephone): That's good... that's good... that's bad... that's good....that's bad....

JOHNSON: What's the matter? What are you doing?

OLSEN: I'm helping her sort a box of strawberries. That's bad... that's good...


Because of the rights problems, Hellzapoppin isn't on VHS or DVD, but if it turns up on TV, at least watch the first ten minutes or so. Your mind will be blown. Odd how comedians as gleefully lowbrow as Olsen and Johnson can sometimes come off as so sophisticated -- and hold up so well.

A longer article about Olsen and Johnson is here.

Won't You Come Home, J. Weinman?

Sorry I've been asleep at my post (or is it asleep at my postings?) for a few days. New meanderings to follow shortly.

Meanwhile, Mary Tyler Moore Show fans can take heart in the TV Shows on DVD announcement that the second season is coming to DVD on July 12. I think that's got to be the current record for longest gap between season 1 and season 2 releases (the first season came out in September 2002).

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Les Titres Étrangers

Apropos of absolutely nothing (and of what else should a blog post be apropos?), I was wondering: why is it that some titles are referred to in their original language, and others are referred to in translation? Take movies. There seems to be no way of knowing whether a movie will wind up known by its original-language title or not. Everybody refers to Renoir's La Regle Du Jeu as The Rules of the Game, yet if you say you're going to see Renoir's version of Zola's The Human Beast, no one will know what you're talking about until you say it in French: La Bête Humaine. You go to see Godard's Breathless instead of A Bout De Souffle, but in the same festival they'll have Godard's Pierrot le Fou instead of Crazy Pierrot. Kurosawa's Kagemusha might have sold a few more tickets if it had been released as Shadow Warrior, but nobody felt it was necessary to release The Seven Samurai in America as Shichinin no Samurai. We fell asleep in the middle of Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad, not Hiroshima My Love and L'Année dernière à Marienbad. Is there any real reason to call a movie L'Eclisse or La Strada when The Eclipse and The Road will do just as well? And the list goes on and on.

It's not just movies, either. It happens occasionally with operas. We go to see La Clemenza Di Tito and not The Clemency of Titus, but most people sensibly refer to The Magic Flute and not Die Zauberflote. Handel's Julius Caesar is usually listed as Giulio Cesare but it's Verdi's Macbeth and not Macbetto. But for the most part, operas have pretty much been taken over by the original-language-title brigade, so that English-speaking audiences all refer to Un Ballo in Maschera and not A Masked Ball and Il Trovatore rather than The Troubadour, and even Madame Butterfly tends to be called Madama Butterfly these days.

Personally, I prefer to refer to the title in my own language unless the title is something that doesn't really translate, like Cosi Fan Tutte or even Les Miserables (I could call it "The Wretched" but it would remind people of the name of that band Vanessa Huxtable snuck out to see in that Cosby Show episode, and I don't think that's what Victor Hugo intended). However, I will try to say hard-to-pronounce titles in their original languages, just to annoy and/or impress people. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to see Tchaikovsky's Lebedinoye ozero.

DVD Release Roundup

This blog is always in danger of becoming a series of "Hey, I just watched this on DVD" posts. So, as an alternative, I'll do a "Hey, this is coming out on DVD soon..." post. Here are some upcoming DVD releases of interest to those with an interest in Something Old and/or Nothing New:

- May 24 brings the first DVD release of Baa Baa Black Sheep, aka Black Sheep Squadron. This is sort of the ultimate Stephen J. Cannell show, with all his strong points -- fast, funny, action-packed, great dialogue -- and weak points, like repetitive plotting and the almost total nonexistence of women. Also like most Cannell shows, it started as an attempt to latch onto a formula popularized by something else, in this case M*A*S*H and its combination of service comedy and wartime drama. You could say that Black Sheep was like M*A*S*H except with the preaching replaced by action scenes. The DVD release includes the first 10 episodes, and it's probably worth a rental at least.

- Ernst Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait is on its way from Criterion in June. I want to write more about this one, but I'll just say that this is not only a great Lubitsch movie, it is one of the great Fox Technicolor movies -- no studio ever made color movies as beautiful-looking as Fox in the '40s. The VHS version didn't do justice to Heaven Can Wait, Lubitsch's only completed color movie, so the DVD should be eye-popping.

- A post on a message board also mentioned that Criterion's releases for July will include Louis Malle's Goodbye, Children -- or Au Revoir Les Enfants if you think it's in bad taste to call French movies by English titles -- and Preston Sturges' Unfaithfully Yours. I'm still a little disappointed that Criterion's distribution deal with Fox hasn't led to any releases of Frank Tashlin movies (somebody should release Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and Fox probably isn't going to do it), but they've got a lot of worthwhile stuff coming as a result of the deal.

- Clueless, the best Jane Austen adaptation ever and a movie about which I have made my feelings known, will apparently be coming out in a 10th-anniversary special edition DVD this summer.

Songs From "NewsRadio: The Musical"

As part of my ongoing efforts to use a blog as a dumping-ground for stuff I'm never going to use anywhere else, I thought I'd post a few song lyrics I wrote a couple of years ago as an exercise: to see if I could write songs for an adaptation of a TV series. (There have been very few musicals based on TV shows, which I find surprising when you consider that there have been many musicals based on comic strips, which are at least as hard to adapt and to cast effectively.) So I picked "NewsRadio" and set to work trying to write songs that various characters on the show might plausibly sing in a musical version of the show.

As I said, it was just an exercise, but I kind of liked a few of the lyrics I came up with, and I might as well post them here. Oh, and in case you're wondering, which you aren't, I wasn't in a songwriting workshop or anything; this "exercise" was self-imposed. I have strange hobbies.

One of them I've already posted; it was As Little as Possible, a song that was supposed to be sung by Matthew, the Andy Dick character, as a peppy upbeat celebration of the joys that come to the office worker who never does any work.

The most in-character song I came up with was one for Jimmy James, the billionaire station owner. It was a song about the "wife search" that was a running gag on "NewsRadio" for the first few seasons:

---------

You Gotta Have a Wife

Refrain 1

I’m a guy with tons of the green stuff,
I’m a guy who’s done and seen stuff,
Life has been fun,
But I tell you, son,
When fun is done,
You gotta have a wife.
(Or a real good book.)
Single men can work till their backs break,
But they never get no tax break.
Wanna pay less
To the IRS?
Well, then I guess
You gotta have a wife.
(Or a good Swiss bank.)
When your life is mid,
When you ain’t a kid,
Then you make your bid
For a gal to combine with
And slowly decline with.
‘Cause when your flings are shorter and fewer,
When you’re not the stud that you were,
Time to add some value
To your life.
Let me tell you, pal, you
Gotta have a wife.

Interlude

From men with power to nuts with knives,
Ev’ryone gets their share of wives.
The lousiest louses, or is it lice,
The mousiest mouses, or is it mice,
All wind up with spouses, or is it spice?
A guy who looks like Quasimodo with hives
Somehow can scare up his share of wives.
I saw a flick where Jim Carrey got one,
That stinky Tarzan found a hot one;
I’ve even heard that the farmer took one,
And Hannibal Lecter had time to cook one;
Aladdin wished for a magic wish-wife,
And Aquaman found himself a fishwife;
Well, I don’t sneer like Hannibal
Or smell like a farmer
Or steal like Aladdin
Or hang around with fish like that weirdo Aquaman,
Though I think that Aquaman was an underrated Superfriend,
And remember Gleek and the Wonder Twins?
Well anyway, the second refrain begins:

Refrain 2

If you think you’d like it a lot to
Find a gal who’s nice and hot to
Help you cross streets,
Give you treats and sweets,
And clean your sheets –
You gotta have a wife.
(She’ll be just like Mom.)
Take the Fonz, he flirted so brashly,
Then he met that nice girl Ashley.
Ashley moved on,
And the show was gone,
Which proves that Fon-
Zie should have had a wife.
(And the scripts were lame.)
When your life’s a dud,
When you feel like crud,
When your name is mud,
Better offer your name up
And divvy the blame up.
Don’t wind up like Mister Miles Standish;
Go and get a sweet but bland dish
Added to the menu
Of your life.
When you’re older, then you
Gotta have a –
When you get that yen, you
Gotta have a –
Now’s the moment when you
Gotta have a wife.
Let me say again, you
Gotta have a wife.


The best song of the bunch, though not all that true to the show, was a duet for Dave, the program director, and ambitious co-worker and girlfriend Lisa. It was written as an exercise in doing a lyric that could make sense in and out of character context, and I actually think it's a pretty good (not great, but pretty good) anti-love-song:

A Little Relationship

Verse
LISA:
Now that our affair’s begun,
It’s time we solemnly swore
This affair will be pure fun,
With no emotional core.
We’ll settle for nothing more.

Refrain 1

We’ll have a little relationship,
No silliness,
No sweat.
We’ll promise to stay
Exactly the way
We were before we met.
A very little relationship,
No damages,
No debt.
We’ll start at the top,
We’ll love till we stop,
And then we’ll just forget.
Affection won’t affect us
If we’re lucid and smart.
I’ll stick to my prospectus
And you’ll follow your chart.
A bright and brittle relationship,
No folderol,
No fuss,
We’ll carefully check
Each minus and plus,
Then say, what the heck,
A little relationship
Is big enough
For us.

Refrain 2

DAVE:
We’ll have a little relationship,
No strings attached,
No sweat.
I’m all for affairs
Where nobody shares
Or swears or gets upset.
I’ll be a little in love with you,
Not Romeo,
Not Rhett.
‘Cause frankly, my dear,
It ought to be clear
I’m more like Boba Fett.
We’ll keep our former habits
And our normal routines;
We’ll mate like bunny rabbits
But we’ll think like machines.
A noncommittal relationship,
No messiness,
No muss,
We’ll neatly divide,
We’ll calmly discuss,
We’ll gladly decide
A little relationship
Is big enough
For us.

----------

And one that was supposed to be an uptempo song for three of the other co-workers, sung to Dave, and providing an excuse for a dance number:

You're Too Uptight

BETH:
You're too uptight,
And that's a prob,
'Cause all you say
Is "do your job."
You're button-down
And so repressed
In those rejected clo'es
From Father Knows Best.
Don't be a prig,
Don't be a pig,
Why don't you call the attack off,
Learn how to back off,
And if we slack off,
What's the big?
Say, aren't you bored
With always being right?
It's true we screw up,
But, Dave, you're too uptight.

JOE
You're too uptight,
You're at my throat,
I call in sick,
You want a note.
You always throw
A fit of pique.
Why should you bust my ass
For just one gas leak?
Don't make a stink,
Go see a shrink,
And if I say that my plan'll
Knock out a panel,
Why should you channel
Colonel Klink?
Now let me add
In plain and painful sight
The chart I drew up
To prove you're too uptight.

MATTHEW:
You're too uptight,
You've gone too far,
You took away
My Shriner car.
The things I like
You won't allow.
Who else banned squirting ink?
Hm -- let me think -- Mao!

JOE
So quit your rants...

BETH
And learn to dance...

MATTHEW
I've got just three words for you, sir,
Bigshot producer:
Start wearing looser
Underpants.

BETH: That's four words.

JOE
Remember when
We had that pillow fight?

ALL THREE:
Well, then you blew up
And said it's time we grew up,
Why can't you scare a clue up
And learn you're too uptight.

------------

And if you've read this far -- which I sincerely hope, for your sake, you haven't -- now you know why TV shows aren't made into musicals.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Attack of the Song Pluggers

In this post about Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, I wrote about the big musical joke in John Williams' score, which is that there's only one theme in the movie and it's heard in every conceivable form (even when Marlowe rings a doorbell, the doorbell plays the movie's theme song). I mentioned that this was a parody of the incessant plugging of movie title songs in the late '60s. But it occurs to me that it might also be a nod to a specific movie, Out of the Past. Roy Webb's score has more than one theme somewhere in there, but the main theme is heard a lot and in all kinds of different forms: when Robert Mitchum goes to a nightclub, the band is playing the movie's theme song; when Jane Greer puts on a record, there it is again. The Long Goodbye was a film noir tribute before such tributes were cool -- and it captures the messiness and freakish supporting characters of noir in a way that the tidier, more refined and humorless Chinatown can't do -- so I wouldn't be surprised if this was a conscious reference.

Roy Webb, by the way, was a pretty entertaining composer; he never made the big time among film composers, but because he was at RKO, the quirkiest of Hollywood studios, he got to score a lot of interesting movies: everything from I Married A Witch to the Val Lewton films to Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious to a boatload of films noirs. He matched RKO's tough, punchy style with tough, punchy scores that usually also included at least one big romantic string theme for the opening credits. Basically, he wrote high-quality B-movie music, but that's perfect for movies like Cat People and Out of the Past and Murder My Sweet, which are essentially B-movie material raised to A-level by imagination and energy, rather than big money or big stars.

Before Webb came out to Hollywood, he was a Broadway orchestrator who orchestrated many Rodgers and Hart shows in the '20s; most of his orchestrations are lost, but his surviving orchestrations for shows like A Connecticut Yankee and Chee-Chee are knockouts, every bit as good as the work of a Robert Russell Bennett.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Worst of the Best

The Onion A.V. Club has a fun article about bad scenes in great movies and great scenes in bad movies. The picks for the former are mostly spot-on, while I haven't seen enough of the latter bunch of movies to comment (except Walk on the Wild Side, the most famous example of a movie where the title sequence outshines the actual film).

I should add my own choices for worst scenes in great movies, but I need to think a bit more about it. I could pick scenes that I think are just overrated -- like the hunting scene in The Rules of the Game, an overlong bit of heavy-handed preachery that drags down an otherwise subtle movie with its five-and-ten-cent-store symbolism -- but for the most part, even the lesser scenes in good movies tend not to be bad. That's why something like the psychiatrist scene in Psycho, a scene that is not only heavy-handed but cheesy, clumsily shot, and generally badly done, is a gift from the Gods: a scene in a good movie that seems to have wandered in from a genuinely bad movie. I need to think of a few more scenes like that.

One filmmaker who does come to mind as perfect for something like this is Blake Edwards. He's never made a good movie without some really atrocious scenes, and on the other hand even his worst movies have some pretty good things in them (Curse of the Pink Panther is almost -- almost worth it for that closing gag with Roger Moore). If I liked Breakfast at Tiffany's enough to consider it a great movie, any scene with Mickey Rooney would be an easy choice for the "worst scenes in great movies" list.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

That Great, Great Polish Actor

I would assume that most people reading a blog like this would already have seen and loved Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be. That movie needs no recommendation from me, so instead I'll write about a couple of tangential points:

1. You may notice that Mr. Greenberg (Felix Bressart, a staple in Lubitsch movies of this period), the Jewish actor who gets the role of his life toward the end of the picture, is never explicitly referred to as Jewish; even Shylock's big speech from The Merchant of Venice, which Greenberg recites at several key points, is stripped of the word "Jew" every time he recites it, And the film never explicitly says that the Jews are a particular target of the Nazis, even though the climax of the film depends on just that fact.

Hollywood movies rarely included Jewish characters in this era, and anti-Nazi movies were de facto forbidden from mentioning Hitler's targeting of the Jews; the only American movie that did so was Warner Brothers' Mr. Skeffington, where the title character tells his daughter that he is not safe in Europe because he is Jewish. And as this article explains, that one line brought the movie under attack from all sides:

Even that single instance caused Jews of a certain stripe--for example, those who governed the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League--to have fits, and Roosevelt's own Office of War Information sent in an official complaint: "This portrayal on the screen of prejudice against the representative of an American minority group is extremely ill-advised."


So To Be Or Not To Be, like most anti-Nazi films of the time, emphasizes the general aspect of the Nazi terror -- the threat the Nazis pose to everyone -- rather than the threat that they pose to a specific group. Still, the movie finds ways to send out signals about the latter threat, mostly through Greenberg; after the montage of posters showing the mounting reign of terror in Poland, Lubitsch dissolves to Greenberg reciting: "If you prick us, do we not bleed?"

And one thing that may or may not have been intentional, but certainly makes the same point in its own way: after his climactic recitation of Shylock's speech, Greenberg disappears from the movie. He's not seen on the plane with the escaping actors, and he's not seen among the actors after they've escaped to England. We're never told that he didn't escape with the rest of them, and I think we are supposed to assume that they all got away, but we never actually see him again after he stands up to the Nazis. For all I know this might just mean that Felix Bressart wasn't available when they shot those scenes, but it does make a subliminal point, intentional or no, about which member of the troupe is the least likely to get away from the Nazis.

2. In Carole Lombard's biography, Screwball, it's mentioned that the part of Maria Tura was actually intended for Miriam Hopkins; she was one of Lubitsch's favorite actresses (she gave three superb -- and very different -- performances for him, in The Smiling Lieutenant, Trouble in Paradise and Design For Living); her career had started to falter, due in part to her own hotheadedness and unreliability, and To Be or Not to Be was to be her comeback. However, Hopkins objected to the fact that her part was clearly secondary to Jack Benny's, and lobbied Lubitsch and Edwin Justus Meyer for a rewrite to make the part bigger; meanwhile, Lubitsch was unable to get a Hollywood studio to take on the project and was having trouble raising the money to make it independently. When Lombard heard about the project and read the script, she agreed to take the smaller role (in exchange for bigger billing); Hopkins withdrew, and with Lombard's name attached, Lubitsch and Alexander Korda were able to raise the money they needed to make the film.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

The Calla Lilies Are In Bloom Again

Instead of complaining about the way Hollywood buys pre-existing works and then changes them beyond recognition, I will invite you to consider the case of Stage Door (1937). This is a movie that completely trashed the play it was supposedly based on. And it turns out that that was a good thing, because the movie is infinitely better than its nominal source.

First, some gushing about the film: Stage Door, the movie, is one of the best movies of the '30s. The director, Gregory La Cava, would have been one of the all-time greats if he hadn't been an alcoholic; as it was, he made several true classics, including My Man Godfrey and this one. La Cava and producer Pandro Berman assembled an extraordinary cast for the story of a New York boarding house for struggling actresses: the lead roles were for Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers, both at their very best, and supporting players included Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, Ann Miller, and Gail Patrick. La Cava was an improvisatory filmmaker who believed in shooting without a finished script (Leo McCarey was the same way). On Stage Door, before shooting started, he gathered the cast together for two weeks of rehearsals and encouraged them to ad-lib and improvise; he had a secretary take down the best lines that came out of these improv sessions, and incorporated them into the finished film. The whole movie has this loose, improvisational quality; it also has some real insight into the questions of what we have to do to "make it," in life or in show business, and into the cruelty of the fact that some people get the breaks while other, equally talented people, do not. It's an exceptionally rich, funny, affecting movie, and one of the fastest-moving and most concise movies ever made; there's not a wasted scene or an unnecessary line, and the movie takes only 91 minutes to tell a fairly complicated story with a number of subplots.

Now for the comparison of the film and the play. I'm going to spoil the plot of the film here, so if you haven't seen it, see it and come back to this later. Very briefly, the lead of the movie is Terry Randall (Katharine Hepburn), an heiress who is determined to make it on her own. She comes to New York and stays at the Footlight Club, a theatrical boarding house. She tells her father that she wants to find out whether she has what it takes to succeed as an actress; if she fails, she'll come home. Deciding to speed up the process, her father secretly makes a deal with producer Anthony Powell (Adolphe Menjou): he'll finance Powell's production of Enchanted April on condition that Terry be cast in the lead role. Kaye (Andrea Leeds), a "brilliant" actress who hasn't worked in a year and who had her heart set on getting Enchanted April, commits suicide on Terry's opening night. Terry's guilt over Kaye's death causes her to lose her emotional reticence and give a great performance. There are a number of little sub-plots, but the most substantial one involves Terry's roommate and Kaye's friend, dancer Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers), who is wooed by Powell.

Now, the play. The play Stage Door opened on Broadway in 1936; it was written by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, who had previously written Dinner at Eight together. The story of the play is as follows: Terry Randall (Margaret Sullavan) is an aspiring actress who has moved to New York from Indiana. Her father is a poor country doctor and her late mother was an actress before she got married. Terry knows that her mother always regretted giving up her acting career, and she is determined to have the kind of long, successful acting career that her mother never had.

Jean Maitland, "an opportunist; good-natured enough when things go her way; of definite charm and appeal for men," is dating David Kingsley, a producer who used to put on plays but gave it up to go to Hollywood and produce motion pictures. When Terry meets David, she tells him that his play Amaryllis was the first play she ever saw, but that she hasn't seen any of his movies: "I'm afraid I'm kind of dumb about pictures. Mother used to say the theatre had two offsprings -- the legitimate stage, and the bastard." At the end of the first act, Jean tells Terry that Kingsley has gotten both of them an opportunity to sign contracts with a Hollywood studio. But Terry refuses:

TERRY: That isn't acting; that's piecework. You're not a human being, you're a thing in a vacuum. Noise shut out, human response shut out. But in the theatre, when you hear that lovely sound out there, then you know you're right. It's as though they'd turned on an electric current that hit you here. And that's how you learn to act.

JEAN: You can learn to act in pictures. You have to do it till it's right.

TERRY: Yes, and then they put it in a tin can -- like Campell's soup. And if you die the next day it doesn't matter a bit. You don't even have to be alive to act in pictures.


Jean goes to Hollywood; Terry stays in New York, proclaiming her allegiance to the theatre: "It isn't just a career, it's a feeling. The theatre is something that's gone on for hundreds of years. It's -- I don't know -- it's part of civilization."

The second act takes place a year later. Terry is dating Keith, a young left-wing playwright who has finally sold his great play. She assumes she has a shot at the lead part, but the producer wants to cast a better-known actress, and Keith won't stand up for Terry for fear of not getting the play produced. Terry accepts it. Two months later, the play is a hit, and Keith sells out to go to Hollywood and become a screenwriter. Terry dumps him. Kingsley returns and tells Terry that she's a great actress but a lousy self-promoter; that's why she can't make it in New York. But in Hollywood, with a studio contract and the promotion machine behind her, "they'll know what to do with you out there."

In act three, Jean returns, having become a big movie star; now she's going to star in a play. Kingsley knows that Jean, having sold out, doesn't have what it takes to carry a good play, and is angry about it: "When picture people come into the theatre -- when they take a really fine play and put a girl like Jean in it -- when they use a play like this for camera fodder, that's more than I can stand. The theatre means too much to me."

Sure enough, at rehearsal, it turns out that Jean is simply not up to the part. Kingsley collars Mr. Gretzl, the producer of the play, and brings him to hear Terry do a reading. Gretzl isn't interested: "All I wanted it for was Jean Maitland, so she could make a picture of it." So Kingsley offers to buy the play from Gretzl: he's going to go back into the theatre, and produce the play with Terry as the star. And, of course, not only does Terry get the part, she gets the guy:

TERRY: David, oh, my dear, you mustn't do this just for me.

KINGSLEY: No, I'm not one of those boys who puts on a play just so that his girl can act in it... by the way, you are my girl, aren't you?

TERRY (brightly): Oh, yes, sir.

KINGSLEY: I just thought I'd ask.

(He takes her in his arms and kisses her.)


A subplot involves Kaye, a struggling actress who is running away from an abusive husband: "There's nothing else I can do and nobody I can go back to. Except somebody I'll never go back to." By the second act, Kaye hasn't worked in a year; she is broke, hungry and hopeless, and finally kills herself. The character of Kaye was retained in the movie, as was her lack of work, her suicide and that one line about "somebody I'll never go back to," but everything else about the character, including her reason for killing herself, was changed.

Was there anything else from the play that got used in the movie? Yes. One of Terry's lines in the play was given to Kay in the movie: "You're an actress if you're acting. Without a job and those lines to say, an actress is just an ordinary person, trying not to look as scared as she feels." And there may be a few lines I've missed that made it into the movie. Otherwise, the movie is a completely original work that uses the same setting, a couple of character names, and nothing else.

The play isn't bad; as always with Kaufman plays, it is well-constructed, does a good job of handling a large cast, and has some good lines. The anti-Hollywood theme of the play was probably dear to the heart of Kaufman, who detested Hollywood; he went out there to write one movie (A Night at the Opera) and direct another one (The Senator Was Indiscreet), but otherwise he was true to New York and the New York stage, and into Stage Door he poured some of his feelings about why live theatre is better. You could argue that Stage Door is more personal than most plays from Kaufman, a mostly impersonal technician whose plays are usually defined by the personalities of his collaborators. But, all that said, it's hopelessly phony and pointless. And the play proved the phoniness of its own theme from the moment the curtain went up on opening night, because the star was Margaret Sullavan -- an actress who had found equal success in film and on the stage, and whose appeal at the New York box office was undoubtedly helped by her success in Hollywood. The presence of Sullavan proved the falseness of the authors' thesis that doing pictures makes you unfit to be a stage actor; and her presence also made them look like hypocrites for arguing, through the hero, that plays shouldn't feature movie stars.

The play, in other words, is dated, creaky, and based on a premise that doesn't hold up. The movie is none of these things. (George S. Kaufman's only comment on the movie was that they changed it so much that it should have been re-named Screen Door.) Its very excellence was further proof that the play was based on a mistaken premise: the play is about the inferiority of Hollywood movies to the New York stage, yet it (nominally) inspired a Hollywood movie that was far finer than the New York stage original.

I'll close by pointing out a couple of mini-ironies about the movie. One: that this complete evisceration of a George S. Kaufman play was co-written by Morrie Ryskind, who had once been one of Kaufman's most frequent collaborators (they wrote Of Thee I Sing and several scripts for the Marx Brothers). And two: even though the play was co-written by a woman, it ends as a conventional love story where the heroine's fulfilment is largely contingent on her getting a man. While the movie, which was entirely created by men, is one of the most genuinely feminist movies ever made, in the sense that it is about women who don't define themselves by their romantic relationships with men (there is almost no romance in the film) and who are determined to be what they want to be rather than what society wants them to be. Most "women's" stories are about women who mostly think about men. Stage Door is a movie where women actually have other dreams, other priorities, other goals. Take that, Sex and the City.

Come and Listen To My Story

Paul Henning died yesterday at the age of 93. The obit above, from a newspaper in Henning's native Missouri, is much better and more detailed than the AP obit.

Henning, like a surprisingly large number of successful comedy writers, had a law degree, though he didn't practice law; instead he took a staff job at a Kansas City radio station, and broke into the big time when he got a spec script accepted by Fibber McGee and Molly. He wrote for a number of radio comedies, but his most important credit was The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show; he was one of the top writers on the radio show, and had a big role in helping to develop the show for television. He left Burns and Allen to write and produce The Bob Cummings Show, one of the funniest sitcoms of the '50s (and certainly the lewdest; in an era where nearly every sitcom was about a family, this was about the adventures of a womanizing glamour photographer). His best-known credit is, of course, The Beverly Hillbillies, arguably the biggest hit sitcom of all time -- at the height of its popularity it pulled in a staggering number of viewers, more than any series could possibly get today -- and, at its best, which is to say in the first two seasons, a very funny show that brought the Vaudevillian sensibility of radio comedy to the world of TV sitcoms.

Henning wrote or co-wrote nearly every episode of The Beverly Hillbillies during its nine-year run; he also created Petticoat Junction and served as a consultant on Green Acres (after Variety mistakenly credited him with creating Green Acres, he generously took out an ad in Variety calling attention to the name and work of the show's actual creator, Jay Sommers). He also wrote two movie scripts with Stanley Shapiro, Lover Come Back, the best of the Doris Day/Rock Hudson movies, and Bedtime Story, later remade as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Lover Come Back isn't all it might have been as a movie, mostly because of bad direction, but the script, which uses the romantic-comedy formula as a pretext for a very funny satire on Madison Avenue, has some of the best lines of any comedy script of the '60s.

He was a prolific and very funny comedy writer whose good-natured humor, along with his ability to tailor his material to the strengths of his performers, has made his best work hold up very well. He also has some historical significance in that he helped to bring the concept of the "arc" show into the mainstream of radio and TV (in his radio work, and on The Beverly Hillbillies, he often did story arcs stretching story threads over several weeks or even months, instead of making every episode self-contained). Plus the theme song of "The Beverly Hillbillies" is his work, too.

Friday, March 25, 2005

We Hate Each Other Very Much

This may be a weird thing to nit-pick about when watching one of the best movies ever made, but: I was watching The Band Wagon again the other day. As you know if you've seen the film -- and you should -- the last third of the movie is mostly just a series of musical numbers representing excerpts from the musical comedy that Lily and Lester (Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant) have written for Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire). So here's what I got to wondering: how could these numbers possibly fit into a musical?

Now, when Lily and Lester are describing the plot of their show, they say it's about a writer of children's books who writes lurid murder mysteries on the side. That description provides an excuse for the climactic ballet, the Mickey Spillane spoof "The Girl Hunt." (It's also the climax of the whole film; the question in the film is whether Tony Hunter can re-invent himself for the '50s while still providing the kind of old-fashioned entertainment he prefers; "The Girl Hunt" shows that the answer is yes.) And the fact that it's supposed to be about a writer of children's stories just about explains "Triplets"; maybe it's an excerpt from one of the character's books. But can you possibly think of a plot into which "Louisiana Hayride" could fit? Or why Astaire, if he's playing a struggling writer of popular fiction, is singing and dancing with Jack Buchanan in top hat, white tie and tails? Or what that "New Sun in the Sky" thing (the weakest number in the picture, anyway) is supposed to be about?

Let me try and make up some kind of scenario for it: Astaire's character is in love with a stage performer, played by Charisse, and goes to see her perform ("New Sun in the Sky"). He and his best friend, Buchanan, discover after the performance that they both love the same girl, that she's in love with someone else, and that they rented those darn tuxedos for nothing ("I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan"). To cheer him up, Astaire's best friend, Fabray, invites him to a party where everybody has to dress up as stereotypical Southerners ("Louisiana Hayride"), but instead Astaire throws himself back into writing a new children's book ("Triplets"). Closure is achieved when he and the girl he loves get to star in an adaptation of one of his murder mysteries ("The Girl Hunt").

Well, I gave it a shot.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Self-Promotion

Hey, looks like I made it into McSweeney's.

The key to getting accepted, apparently, is to write something where the whole joke is in the title. But I like it.

Also, Yankee Pot Roast has my helpful how-to piece, A Style Guide For Blog Parodists.

Noir-y About That, Chief

WB Home Video has announced the contents of the next Film Noir Collection, to be released July 5: Crossfire, The Narrow Margin, Born to Kill, Clash by Night, and Dillinger.

I would have liked to see something by Nicholas Ray in there (either They Live by Night or On Dangerous Ground), and I never really thought of Clash by Night as noir (it's based on a play by faux-naturalist Clifford Odets), but overall it's a good selection: four films from the ultimate film-noir studio, RKO, plus one delirious crime drama (Dillinger) from the King Brothers, producers of that other delirious crime drama, Gun Crazy.

Unfortunately I see that one of the commentaries has Peter Bogdanovich involved. But on the plus side, John Boorman's "neo-noir" Point Blank will be released on the same day as the new noir set.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

He Never Does Anything Twice

Doesn't seem possible that Stephen Sondheim could be 75. While he didn't really start all that young, by Broadway standards -- Richard Rodgers had his first hit show and song at 23; George Gershwin had a smash hit song at 21 -- the image of him in the minds of some of us show-music buffs is of the young-looking, shaggy-haired composer-lyricist who was coming in to shake up the squares of Broadway. Even though he was 40 by the time Company premiered, he looked like an enfant terrible and sometimes played the part in interviews, as in his famous early-'70s interview where he said nasty things about the craftsmanship of Larry Hart and vaguely condescending things about his mentor Oscar Hammerstein. But now he looks and sounds like an elder statesman, and that's what he is; he's the last link to the Hammerstein tradition, and he has no apparent successors in carrying on the tradition of creating true musical theatre -- songs that are not just songs but theatre pieces, songs that carry the action forward instead of slowing it down. (Too many post-Sondheim songwriters think that the way to write a good character song is to have a character stop and sing about his or her feelings. That's not it at all. A good theatre song is one where we wind up knowing more about the character's feelings than he or she could tell us directly, whether it's Hammerstein's "If I Loved You" or Sondheim's "Could I Leave You?")

The pros and cons of Sondheim have been endlessly debated and rehashed. His strengths are well-known, and in the type of shows he's chosen to write, his major weakness -- his problem writing good love songs -- isn't all that relevant. I also don't think he's to blame for the rather odd cult of Sondheim-Firsters who like Sondheim but don't like musicals (there seem to be quite a lot of these Sondheim-Firsters in England, for some reason). It may be unfortunate that he was pronounced a genius so quickly and so persistently; by 1970 his name was already a byword among people who wanted musicals to be Art, and by 1973 he was already getting retrospective galas that seemed to appeal more to people in the musical-theatre business than people who just liked musical theatre. All this, combined with Hal Prince's desire to do Important musicals and drive away all his backers, may have helped push Sondheim further away from the disciplines of traditional songwriting -- the A-A-B-A form, concise melodies, comprehensible lyrics -- into long, rambling, diffuse songs.

The Sondheim I like is the Sondheim of the Harold Prince shows, up to Merrily We Roll Along; his best songs were tougher and darker than the average Broadway song, but still with the kind of pep and showbiz punch that is as much a part of good musical-theatre writing as subtext and characterization. After Merrily, a flop full of traditional A-A-B-A songs that didn't catch on with the public, Sondheim stopped doing overtures, dance breaks, applause-baiting crescendi, A-A-B-A refrains, and just about anything else that smacked of showbiz or song-plugging. Yet the unique appeal of the Broadway musical is based in part on its showbiz component, of the attempt of songwriter, performer, designer, director and choreographer to knock 'em dead in the aisles while still making each number dramatically relevant. Something like Sunday in the Park With George, where everything is dramatically relevant, every song sounds the same and all traces of "showbiz" have been purged, just isn't of interest to me. (And if you're going to write songs that exist only to serve the drama, it would help if the drama being served wasn't created by James Lapine, a writer whose lines sound like they were translated from the original Sanskrit and a director who coaches actors to speak as if English wasn't their first language.) Someone on a theatre newsgroup once put it succinctly: He wanted "More Sondheim shows with overtures." Sounds about right to me. And another showstopping, crowd-pleasing, applause-baiting theatre piece like "A Weekend in the Country" wouldn't hurt either.

One more thing: I still hold to the once-conventional wisdom that Sondheim is not a very good melodist. This doesn't have a great deal to do with the charge that his tunes aren't "hummable" (I don't think they are, but that doesn't mean they're bad melodies). It's more that Sondheim's songs often don't have a very strong melodic profile. Sondheim builds his melodies out of little phrases that get repeated a lot; some of his songs, like "Now You Know" from Merrily We Roll Along, basically consist of one phrase repeated over and over and over. This is, or can be, a legitimate way to build a melody, but it means that the opening bars of a Sondheim melody often don't sound like much at all -- it takes a long time for a lot of his songs to make their melodic points, establish what the style and tone of the melody is going to be. And in writing theatre melodies, that's a big minus, because the crucial point in a theatre song is the beginning of the refrain; it's the part that establishes, in the listener's mind, the melodic profile of the song. When you hear the first bars of the refrain of "Some Enchanted Evening" or "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" or any number of great theatre songs, you hear a distinctive melodic idea right away, something that clues you in on the point the melody is making, and thus the theatrical and character point that the song is making overall. Sondheim's melodies ramble, they dither, they take a long time to make their points. (His most popular melody, that of "Send in the Clowns," is also one that starts up-front with an intriguing melodic idea that sums up the mood of the whole song.) And in theatre music, you don't have that much time; everything is zooming at the listener at top speed and it has to communicate instantly. Without a melody that establishes a profile up-front, right away, a song is hobbled as a theatre piece, because its ability to give the audience a quick impression of mood or characterization is limited. And that's part of the reason why a lot of Sondheim songs seem to make a bigger impression with their lyrics than with their music.

This rambling post is less grateful than it perhaps should have been to a great theatre songwriter who has brought great pleasure to many people. So I'll just close by saying thank you, Mr. Sondheim, happy birthday, and many more, and quote a Sondheim lyric about giving thanks for what we've been given, from Do I Hear a Waltz?:


Thank you so much, sir,
Wasn't it fun?
No reason at all to cry.
Let's keep in touch, sir,
Now that it's done;
You can't say we didn't try.
Did it go by so quickly?
Really, it seems a crime.
But thank you so much
For something between
Ridiculous and sublime.
Thank you for such
A little but lovely time.