Wednesday, January 06, 2021


 

Riedel, Michael   Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway

Theatre gossip is hard to turn down, so I was delighted to see Michael Riedel’s Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway in my Christmas stocking.   In an earlier book (Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway), he covers the 1970’s and 80’s with a focus on a consortium of powerful theatre owners and two English giants  Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh. As they take-back  the Times Square area from the sex industry. There is no question that, as a long time theatre columnist for the New York Post, Riedel has had an insider’s look at the Great White Way for a lot of years.  Singular Sensation treats the 1990’s and the compelling rise of home grown talents to take over the once foreign dominated Broadway scene.  I’ve been a theatre guy for most of my life and this book tells me why I have loved it.  It is informative, engrossing, and of course full of plenty of juicy insider theatrical gossip.   What more can you ask for?

Riedel begins with the story of the rise and fall of the last of the big British produced musicals. “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera.” They are still running but Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Blvd.” is running into problems due to high stakes jockeying for its leading role by Glen Close, Patti LuPone, and Faye Dunnaway.  That show is then pushed out of the spotlight by the new American wave with a detailed treatment of the creation of Johathan Larsen’s “Rent” and the story of the tragic demise of its author. One item I learned was  that the title had a double meaning. The characters could not afford their “rent” and everyone around them was being “rent” by AIDS, drugs, poverty, gentrification, and alienation.”

Although we do get some treatment of the big  “stars” who could make and break shows all by themselves, people like Nathan Lane and Patti LuPone do  have to take a back seat. The emphasis of Riedel’s story is on the moguls who own the theatres, the producers who are searching for the “hit,” and the creators themselves who are writing the songs and the scenes.  We are let in on the inside maneuverings to get the right property into the right theatre at the right time. You see up close the machinations of the Shubert and Nederlander organizations and follow the rise of the upstart on the block, Jujamcyn.  As one wag said, the name seemed more like a prescription for an antibiotic than a theatrical organization.  I did learn that the weird name was chosen by the original moneyed angel William McKnight, who was a theatre lover and the chairman of  Minnnesota’s 3M company. Jujamcyn was actually just a combination of the beginnings of the names of his three grandchildren--Julie, James, and Cynthia.  Mr. McKnight, by the way, was also an early supporter of Minneapolis’ Tyrone Guthrie Theatre.  A group of talented young actors who were some of my fellow grad students at the U. of Minnesota in the sixties were called  McKnight Fellows. A number of them went on to become long term and loved resident performers for the Guthrie company.  

One of the larger than life producers who seemed to dominate the 90’s was Garth Drabinsky.  He was tough, reckless, and rapacious and spent money with an abandon that would make King Midas look like skinflint.  A theatre insider was quoted as saying about him, that  “Garth was the only guy I knew who could overspend an unlimited budget.”  Drabinsky created his movie and theatre empire on the back of receipts from the Canadian rights to “The Phantom of the Opera,” but finally lost his golden touch and ended up spending time behind bars for cooking his own books.

Nearing the end of the decade and the tragedy of 9/11, we are treated to the engrossing story of Julie Taymor and Disney’s “The Lion King.”  That is followed closely by Mel Brooks and the saga of “The Producers.”   It might seem that this entire volume is focused on musicals and it cannot be denied that musicals are the big ticket items that drive Broadway.  On the other hand, fans of drama need not be too concerned. There is more than enough treatment in the book of the contributions of shows by Tony Kushner, Neil Simon, and Edward Albee to at least recognize that drama without music was still around.   

In sum Riedel gives you the privilege of loitering in the back recesses of the green room in order to overhear the making of the most important theatrical endeavors of the decade. I was also reminded that the business of making theatre is tougher than a cheap steak and that picking a winner is as hard as picking the right murderer in an Agatha Christie mystery. 

 

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

William Shakespeare and Six Bits of Bardic Fun

 



Everyone needs lists to usher in the New Year. I will stick to optimism and give you my choice of six books you could gift to a theatre enthusiast or read yourself during the upcoming winter.  They are entertaining mysteries of a sort and all come with a connection to Shakespeare. Look on the internet for available copies.  


1) Let’s start with an all time absolute classic. Read or give a friend a copy of Josephine Tey’s 1951 The Daughter of Time.  It will suck you into “Richard III” as an illness confined detective seeks to solve the mystery of the murder of the Young Princes right from his hospital bed.

2) If you have a soft spot in your heart for the Bard’s birthplace, another classic that might make a good read or gift is Martha Grimes’ 1984 The Dirty Duck.  It has Superintendent Richard Jury discovering that Stratford-Upon-Avon’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s stage is not the only place where murder is committed.  Only the truly initiated will know what the title refers to.

3) Do you or your recipient prefer stories with a bit more color, adventure and romance?  Try a different take on “Shakespeare In Love” with Faye Kellerman’s 1989 (paper 2002)  The Quality of Mercy.  It immerses you in the tale of a young Jewish girl out and about in Elizabethan England who meets up with none other than William S. himself. Plenty of skullduggery and intrigue, but not a quick read at over 500 pages. Save it for a winter fireside rather than a sunny summer beach.

4) Is there a gift target or do you have a fondness for the Eastern United States? That might take you in the direction of Shakespeare with a New Haven twist. William Martin’s 2003 Harvard Yard is yet another story of an undiscovered Shakespeare manuscript.  The cachet comes here from the fact that it  is buried in the bowels of our most eminent university’s library.  It covers Harvard’s history all the way from old John’s long ago journey from Bankside right up to the 1960’s. 

5)  If you like things a bit off beat or have friends with the same inclination here is the choice for you. It is hard to classify award winning novelist Margaret Atwood’s 2020 somewhat scary and weird  Hag-Seed. What you get here is a modern story about a vengeance driven stage director with a similarity to Prospero. His name is Felix  and he is the star attraction at a major Canadian Theatre Festival (Think Stratford).  He is suddenly victimized and fired by jealous and ambitious members of his governing board just as he is planning a new and revolutionary production of The Tempest. He spends several years after his dismissal as a hermit while carrying on a ghostly alliance with the imaginary presence of his own dead daughter who just happens to be named Miranda. Finally there comes an opportunity to lead an experimental theatre program in a prison (think a remote island).  He is successful in this endeavor and makes a decision to re-mount the production of The Tempest he had been working on when he was deposed all those years ago. He will use the convicts for most of the roles, but recruits the actress who he had wanted to cast in that production to play Miranda. A marvelous coincidence puts his old enemies within reach (think a shipwreck) and rekindles his thirst for revenge. Familiarity with Shakespeare’s The Tempest is not required, but it does help deepen the strangeness and the magic.  

6) “Avast all ye theatre lubbers!”   My favorite  recent Shakespeare offering is a rip roaring  historical thriller from 2018 titled The Spy of Venice  by Benet Brandreth.  It is raucous, romantic, and swashbuckling  while simultaneously projecting an inventive theory about Will’s famous “lost years.” It hangs on the scholarly peg that if thirteen of Shakespeare’s plays have Italian settings, he must have spent time in Italy.  I really loved this book, so let me give you a more thorough  introduction.

 It is 1585 and Shakespeare has fled Stratford and headed to London where he is eking out a   scant living by holding horses at James Burbage’s “The Theatre.” There he falls in with Nick Oldcastle a Falstaff like company manager, who may hark back to an earlier play titled Sir John Oldcastle and forward to a character not yet given life on the stage by the Bard. Two other actors work with Oldcastle. One is an experienced player named John Hemmings (you may have heard that name before) and the other is a boy named Arthur who plays women’s parts. This quartet is recruited by the English Ambassador to Venice to join a delegation he is leading to bring important political communiqués from Queen Elizabeth to the Doge.

 And thus hangs the tale.  Little do the players realize the treacherous violence that will greet them in Venice.  Amid the masked balls, poetry contests, magnificent art, and alluring women, the affairs of state are being practiced  murderously by spies of all nations up to and even including the Vatican.  Shakespeare remains a  budding wordsmith, but Brandreth  gives him the élan and fighting spirit of  a musketeer.  Knives flash, swords are drawn, and chases careen down narrow alleys and over Venetian bridges. It is a Will with a way you might not have imagined before.  

Brandreth  writes with comic poise and delicious irony.  The arch villain of the piece is named Prospero not Iago. We get cameos from Anne Hathaway, Robert Greene, and the  painter Tintoretto among others. It is the author’s  first novel though he is already a barrister, a performer, and perhaps most importantly the “rhetoric coach” for the RSC. That means he knows his Shakespeare up down and sideways and references to the plays that will someday spill out of the Bard’s fertile mind are both clever and numerous.  He even manages at one point to give us a character who exits rapidly “pursued by a bear.”  Anyone who enjoys lively  historical fiction will get a kick out of this book. Anyone with a theatrical interest will find it a delicious treat.  Brandreth’s second novel is already available in Britain and is titled The Assassin of Verona.  My guess is that it may cover the actor’s homebound trip back from Venice to London and perhaps some R and J allusions or two.  Look for it!

As you wait for a return to creating or watching live theatre, may you or a friend get a bit pleasure from  some of these Shakespearean  Bon Bons.

 

Dr. Jim De Young  12/29/2020

 

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Book Review--SAVING FREEDOM: Truman, The Cold War, and the Fight for Western Civilization by Joe Scarborough

 

One might expect that a book by MSNBC morning anchor Joe Scarborough would be smoking with partisan political  rhetoric.   Surprisingly, what rises off the page is a short, quite evenhanded review of  the presidency of Harry Truman.  Although I was on the planet in the immediate post WWII era, I was more interested in cub scouts and baseball at the time rather than politics.  Since my wife is of the same relative age, we did decide to put in a reserve for the book at our local library in order to fill in our history gap.  

Vice President Truman inherited the presidency upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945 and  quickly found out that Roosevelt,  in spite of his precarious health,  had not  seen fit to share much of anything with him--much less the existence of the Manhattan Project. So right from the get go Truman was faced with a series of war related foreign and domestic problems that all needed fixing or at least decisions made quickly.   Scarborough asserts that Truman met the challenge with an efficiency and courage that was not expected from a non Ivy League, Missouri born, failed haberdasher. 

For instance, he quickly made the decision to drop “the bomb” and that did put an end to WWII. Then he faced down Uncle Joe Stalin’s aggressive expansionism by spelling out what is now called “The Truman Doctrine.”  Most of the ideas came from Dean Acheson and General John Marshall and they were critical in saving post-war Europe from starvation and economic collapse while also keeping it out of the hands of communism. 

Central to the doctrine was that the United States could not return in peacetime to the isolationism it had cultivated after the First World War.  Great Britain was exhausted both physically and economically by the war and was forced to start divesting its worldwide empire.  In its place, said Marshall and Acheson, the USA must take up the mantle of world leadership.  Their immediate challenge was to deal with problems in Greece and Turkey.  They had to get Congress to authorize support for both countries before they fell victim to Joseph Stalin’s rampaging expansionism   Truman parlayed his doctrine with  The Marshall Plan and ultimately financed the rebuilding of Western Europe and the formation of NATO.  Through bends and turns with some successes and some bitter defeats (Viet Nam for instance) these doctrines have remained the cornerstones of  American international diplomacy right up to the present.  

Donald Trump’s presidency, though not treated in any detail in the book,  looms large at its end. Scarborough  points to the Truman legacy as one that needs to be re-assessed  in order to deal with Trump’s attempts to destroy foreign alliances,  muddy international trade, and ignore  science and climate change.  That is where we do get to see how Scarborough’s book meets his current broadcasting situation. He builds up Dean Acheson as the lynchpin that has not been given as much credit as deserved and lauds Truman as the man who laid the ground work for the creation of the cold war and the ground work for winning it.  The warning is clear.  Trump has destroyed many of our country’s commitments to internationalism  and  his brand of “America First and Alone”  is simply not viable in the modern world.

As the book’s  title says, Truman was  the right man for the time and had the right qualities of decisiveness, courage and fighting spirit to pursue a bi-partisan foreign policy through congressional legislation and approval.  David Ignatius’   sums it up better than I can when he says this is the story of how “‘a strange little man’ from Missouri, pulled together Republicans and Democrats to confront Soviet communism and establish America as a global power.”     I recommend this read if you do not feel familiarity with Truman’s tenure and legacy.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

 Christmas Greetings to all 

Volume XLVII                                                Christmas 2020                              December 25, 2020

I  have just finished a delightful memoir by Jacqueline Winspear, the creator of the Maisie Dobbs novels. She titles her book   This Time Next Year We’ll  Be Laughing.  The title came from an expression of hope used by her father who came back from the front late in World War II and found a London that was in smoldering ruins from the Nazi bombings.  This kind of hope expresses our fervent wish for every one of you for the coming year.  Who could have thought that in these pages, which I have normally used to celebrate the accomplishments of the year with humor and tongue in cheek, that all I can do is announce that we are alive and some of us are even still kicking.  With that in mind give me leave to organize this 47th annual Christmas letter around how lucky and privileged we have been in spite of the trauma all around us. 

Pictured above from left to right are our daughter’s family-- Mikel, Amy, Todd, and TJ   As the vaccine trucks start to roll,  I salute first of all our grandson--TJ, a paramedic in Texas, who has been  a first responder on the front line for the entire year.  Next, I tip my hat to his mother and our daughter,  who has been  delivering  an education to first graders in an environment that is frankly crazy to the extreme for both  students and teachers.    Odd as it may seem, the government shortage of coinage during the pandemic has kept son-in-law Todd working overtime in a metal smelter in order to help keep our economy in small change.  Our second grandson, Mikel (who might have been the headliner in any other year) has only been valiantly trying to survive his freshman year as a member of a singular college generation.   Oh for typicality again rather than trying to live in an on-line, off-line,  on-line, off-line,  my dog didn’t eat my essay, the internet chewed it up world.  Don’t worry, In spite of it all, he seems to be doing just fine.   

 Although Jan and I have not seen Amy or any of her family in a long time, the distance between us and our son and his family has been more emotionally wrenching.  Amy and Todd’s boys are grown men.  We’d love to keep on hugging them, but not being able to hug our two five and eight year old granddaughters since February has been a trial that Skype or Face-Time cannot make up for. Here they all are.  Selma is the younger sprite and on the left. Frida, her older sister,  is on the right.

Luckily they all managed to travel from their home in Finland to visit us in Arizona in February. David’s Finnish wife, Lotta, had long wanted to see the American West. So they ventured out during the girls’ winter school break for a look-see at the  Rockies and the depths of the Grand Canyon. They ended up with us in Tucson for a week before  heading back to Los Angeles where they took the girls to Disneyland on the day before it closed.  

2020 began on a note of joy ad happy expectation for the old folks. 

 We started our drive to Arizona a few days after celebrating our 60th Wedding Anniversary and arrived in Tucson on New Year’s Day.  We ate fine Mexican food, attended exciting theatre, signed up for lots of lectures on art and western history, and tramped  the trails in  Sabino Canyon.  In February we had a glorious time showing David and Lotta and their girls the many joys of the Tucson area that we have begun to love over the last several years.  

Then, not with a bang but a nasty whimper, it all went down the rabbit hole.  We settled down in our condo and nursed the vain hope that we could wait it out.  Even though we stayed an extra six weeks before we decided to risk driving back to Monmouth, our family home became just another space in which to hunker down.  Needless to say the “hunker” was longer and harder than anyone expected.  Our planned trip to Finland and London in the summer of 2020 never materialized and we have now been doing our service to the “war effort” by trying to aggressively self isolate until we can all feel safe again.  We walk two miles almost every day and have become Zoom consumers for things like Rotary meetings and AAUW book discussions.  We have tried watching plays and concerts on line,  but have found them less than satisfying in comparison to the real thing.   Especially for me, the guy who spent his working life creating live drama, this year has felt like a piece of my true heart has been ripped out.  I think Jan has handled things a bit better as she can be happier with quietly reading and doing her crosswords and knitting. The one positive about having more spare time is that both of us have spent more effort in working on our family  genealogy and experimenting with a lot of new recipes.       

Yes,  it is a sad day in this sad month in this sad year of 2020 with most of us wishing we could have done more than just work to keep safe.  Even if there has been pain for you in the past months, there may be some solace in remembering  that Christmas does indeed celebrate a birth.  We are now resolved to wait patiently for Biden over Trump, vaccines over masks, real hugs over virtual ones, and dare we say it-- hope over despair.  

I therefore claim with confidence that by This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing.                                                                        


from Jim and Jan