Friday, November 25, 2022

Miracle of the Music Man


Mark Cabaniss’s Miracle of the Music Man does a fine job of stitching interviews and research into the  story of Meredith Willson’s life and career on the Broadway stage. There is no doubt that Willson (with two L's) has become--America’s classic Music Man, but Cabaniss admits in the last pages of the book that his career “started at the top and went progressively downhill.” Unfortunately, this makes for a book that follows the same pattern.  

The material on the making of the iconic musical is filled with drama and inside bits about the struggle to get the show mounted. Right off the bat we learn that one big turning point was when the title was changed from Music Man to The Music Man.  We also learn a lot about Mason City, Iowa, Willson’s family and musical training, his radio career, his stint with the John Philip Sousa band, and finally about performing in the NBC orchestra of Arturo Toscanini.

Like most musicals, The Music Man went through years of re-writes and multiple producers before achieving even the status of a potential Broadway Show. Especially interesting to me was the evolution of the character of Winthrop from a character in a wheelchair to a boy with a lisp, and the story of how Robert Preston got the part of Harold Hill.  Preston is quoted as saying until he got the part, he had been playing “the lead in all the B pictures and the villain in all the epics.”  The story of how the barbershop quartette, The Buffalo Bills, got the job is another intriguing inside bit.  

I must admit to never hearing or seeing the term “gypsy run-through” before. It is apparently the name given to the final run-through of a show in front of an invited audience before it goes on the road to try out before hopefully returning to New York and opening on Broadway. I also learned that composers have songs in what is called their “trunk.”  They have been written and not used or have been discarded from a show and await repurposing. Willson admits taking two or three from the trunk to use in the score for The Music Man. Till There Was You” was from the trunk, as were many versions of what turned out that most compelling rhythmic talk song “Ya Got Trouble”.

As implied from my comment in the first paragraph, the reader in a hurry can probably stop two-thirds of the way through the book and not miss much other than the reasonably successful run of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, the disappointing Here’s Love, and the failure of 1491, which closed before ever reaching Broadway. However, if you have a soft spot in your heart for River City, you can certainly take a quick dip into this readable biography of a man and a musical that continues to hold thousands of theatre goers in its grip through its professional revivals and amateur productions around the globe. Three and a half stars.

 

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

 


THE SWEET REMNANTS OF SUMMER by Alexander McCall Smith

Mr. McCall Smith has written over 70 books. “His No 1 Ladies Detective Agency” series runs to 22 entries and his “Isabel Dalhousie” Series runs a close second with 14 books.  The most recent Dalhousie novel is titled The Sweet Remnants of Summer and it is a pleasant read.    

The heroine, Isabel Dalhousie, lives in Edinburgh with her husband, Jamie, a musician, and their two young sons. Isabel is a philosopher by trade and edits a publication called “The Journal of Applied Ethics.” She has often tried to make up for being independently wealthy by being a helper. As such, she has attracted a reputation for solving other people’s personal problems, but that does not keep her  bassoon playing husband from believing that she may be a bit too aggressive in her willingness to “get involved” in the lives of others.

If you are getting tired of books about serial killers or politicians who insist that all of their opponents are evil, lying, monsters who eat babies in their spare time, a McCall Smith book is an answer to your prayers. It comes with the fresh breeze of a Scottish summer and a love for the sights, sounds, and architecture of Edinburgh. The book is short enough to not demand a commitment of six weeks of hard labor to finish.  It also brings a gentleness, a sense of humor, and an approach to life that fills each of his characters with a sense of what might be if we all could just get along better with each other.

Ms. Dalhousie is the very model of a modern major woman, and as a philosopher, she sees moral dilemmas everywhere. Jamie, her husband, thinks she should stay out of helping people with family disruptions. This occurs even though, at the same time,  he would like to do something about the fact that he believes the conductor of his orchestra will be appointing an unqualified person to a position of importance. A third plot line begins with Isabel’s son’s teacher reporting that her son has bitten a classmate.  All three of the threads combine to make for philosophical considerations of motive, guilt, lying, and penchants toward solving problems with violence or revenge.   

I like these characters. I like this kind of story and I like the thought that we need poetry, kindness, and love to guide our lives. With the winter’s snow descending, we need more of all of those virtues, while we await the coming of spring.

Jim De Young  11/15/2022

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

THE SACRED BRIDGE by Anne Hillerman

 


Given my love affair with Arizona, it is not surprising that I jumped like a desert jack rabbit to read Anne Hillerman’s seventh Joe Leaphorn Jim Chee Bernadette Manuelito novel titled The Sacred Bridge.  If you are counting, there are twenty-five books in the series when you consider the eighteen written by her father Tony that started this long run. Several of the earlier ones were adapted for public television some years back.

In this book we are once again in the heart of Navajo country and we continue to get a full measure of rich history combined with the incredible natural beauty of Lake Powell and the entire south-west. You can open the volume to almost any page and find descriptions like this.

“The desert light and colors fed his spirit; the contrast between the azure sky, the deep, deep blue water shimmering in the sun, the startling white of three small clouds that drifted overhead forming shadows on the lake, the sandstone’s warm brown, vibrant red-orange, and black desert varnish.” 

My own enjoyment was enriched by having visited Lake Powell, Rainbow Bridge, Antelope Canyon, Shiprock, and Page. They all figure prominently in the book’s intricate double plot. The first thread finds Officer Jim Chee on a holiday in the Lake Powell area looking to find a cave mentioned by his mentor Joe Leaphorn while also trying to decide whether he wishes to pursue new life directions. On a trail near the Rainbow Bridge, he looks down into the lake and sees a body.  Atop a cliff he also finds an empty tent and a cache of ancient artifacts. Although not on duty, he must report it. That in short order involves him in the investigation of what looks increasingly like murder.

Meanwhile, back at Shiprock, the second plot begins with Ms. Manuelito also finding trouble when she witnesses a fatal hit and run accident. The victim has no id on him, but does deposit some drugs in Bernadette’s car just before he is run down. Her attempts to identify him and the driver of the deadly car lead her into a dangerous undercover assignment on a medical marihuana farm that has been started on the reservation.

The book moves seamlessly between the two cases with two unifying factors. Bernadette is also deliberating a major career change and both of them find themselves in life threatening situations. The wrap-ups afford a plentiful galaxy of twists and you end with new knowledge about the duo and plenty of hints that could lead to further adventures for both of them. I loved this book and give it ***** five stars.  

Thursday, October 20, 2022

A Study in Treason

 

A STUDY IN TREASON

A Study in Treason by Leonard Goldberg is another of the long list of attempted Sherlock Holmes knockoffs. In this effort, Joanna, the daughter of Holmes, is married to John Watson Jr and they along with the senior Watson, who is recovering from a stroke, are set to the task of discovering who took an important treaty while it was being copied at an English Country House.

The theft is complicated by two murders and the presence of a mysterious guest at a local inn.  The eager authorities, headed by Inspector Lestrade (the son of the original Lestrade), run away with wild accusations while the Sherlockians use deductive observations to zero in on the perpetrator.

I found the constant referral back to earlier Holmes investigations to be tiresome and awkward even though there was a claim that the author was trying to imitate the style of the original. I must also admit I found the novel pretty slow going. I think Nicolas Meyer’s of The 7% Solution series or the Laurie King novels featuring Mary Russell as the deductive heir to Holmes are more successful in capturing and continuing the Arthur Conan Doyle legacy.  I give Goldberg’s effort two stars at best. **   

 

Jim De Young 10/19/2022

 

Thursday, September 29, 2022


 

THE GOLDENACRE by Philip Miller.  Mr. Miller is a resident of Edinburgh and has long been a newspaperman specializing in the arts. Both backgrounds are brought to play in his fine crime novel about an art deception that leads to a host of vicious murders. This Edinburgh is not the sentimental one conjured up by Andrew McCall Smith’s work.  It is gritty, full of imperfect characters, and a fair amount of suffering.  Specifically, we have an already troubled art expert named Thomas Tallis who has to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to explain that he has no relation to the far more famous medieval composer. He comes to town to help authenticate a famous painting and runs into a shadowy conspiracy to bilk Scotland out of 12 million pounds. The fair city of Edinburgh (that is sometimes called “the Athens of the North”) is nicely evoked from the broad expanses of Princes Street to the bleak coastline.  Just when the game is winding up, there are some closing plot twists that put this outing solidly into a genre I would label Scottish Noir.  I give it four stars. ****  



Thursday, September 08, 2022

Thinking of the passing of Queen Elizabeth II

 Thinking of the passing of Queen Elizabeth II

She was not my queen, but I often felt she was in spite of that revolution against the monarchy that created our country.  I watched her coronation on black and white television.  When my wife and I made our first visit to Great Britain in the summer of 1963, London was entering the “swinging sixties” of Carnaby Street and the Beatles.  It was the real beginning of our love affair with Britain. While on that first visit we saw many plays. According to my still saved journal, we saw Lionel Bart’s Blitz about the second world war, Joan Littlewood’s Oh What a Lovely War,  a production of The Tempest at Stratford Upon Avon that I called “the best play production I had ever seen, John Gieldud in The Ides of March at the Haymarket Theatre (where you could have tea brought to your seat at the interval and they still played God Save the Queen at the end of the performance with a live orchestra), a performance of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, an RSC production of John Gay’s The Beggars Opera and the straight from the Edinburgh Festival of ­Beyond the Fringe. This was a show that Kenneth Tynan, a budding theatre critic at that time, helped bring to the attention of London audiences. It was my first exposure to Mr. Tynan, whose rise to the pinnacle of the critic world was to become the subject of my doctoral dissertation.

That 1963 visit was followed by thirteen more visits to London. One was for a full year (1972-73) as director of the ACM Arts of London program.  A second long term was in the 1980’s and again for the ACM London program. The other visits were for sabbaticals, escorting London tours for Monmouth College with students, faculty, and townspeople, and taking our daughter’s grandchildren there to introduce them to our love of London and of travel.  




Along the years we got glimpses of the Queen in person. We made the trek to the Mall to join the crowds when she rode out to Parliament or to review the Guards. I got a glimpse of her through a veil of bushes when she visited Holland Park to make an award to children. We saw the coronation coach at the London Museum and toured Buckingham Palace when it was opened to the public. Our visits to London in essence changed or made our career paths. It opened my wife’s eyes to the challenges and excitement of good primary education. It resulted in the major achievement of my academic career as it resulted in the publication with my good English friend John Miller of our book London Theatre Walks. It went through two editions in 1998 and 2002.  So you see the reign of this Queen accompanied most of our lives and the England she ruled was in our blood for 59 of the 70 years she was on the throne.    

I think also of her important chosen title. Elizabeth II. She took the namesake of a great Queen who had an age named after her “The Elizabethan Age (1558-1603)”. Arguably we may see that we have just experienced the second great Elizabethan Age. One fascinating note mentioned on TV, I think by Katty Kay, was she bought her wedding dress in 1952 with ration coupons, but was known along with her quiet imperial presence and her political acumen, as the wearer of magnificently colored outfits and hats. It was also brought out by Michael Beschloss that Elizabeth was an accidental Queen in the sense that she was not in the line of succession until Edward VIII resigned the throne and turned It over to her father in 1936.  

I have only vague memories of Harry Truman though I heard a lot about FDR from my parents in later years, and voted for the first time for Dwight Eisenhower in his second term.  I met (obviously quite briefly) two of the 13 US presidents the Queen met. I shook hands with Ronald Reagan when he visited Monmouth when he was running to become a candidate, and Bush Senior when he appeared at the college to get an honorary degree long after his presidential turn. I saw President Obama when he spoke in the Monmouth Auditorium while he was running for the nomination, but never got close enough to shake his hand.

I cannot leave my memories of the Queen without mentioning a text from my son who now lives in Finland with his wife and our two precious granddaughters.  David reported that his youngest daughter six year old Selma said at bedtime, “It’s the saddest thing that’s happened in my whole life.”   

I think also of Charles III. The first Charles was beheaded in London in 1649 and the 2nd Charles, known as the “Merry Monarch,” brought the monarchy back from a long period of war and had a mountain of repairs--politically, socially, and artistically facing him. Charles III probably will not be known as “merry” but he will have as many problems facing him as did the second.  And I probably won’t come close to thinking of him as my sovereign. Yet I do wish for him success and the chance to earn his own place in history. God rest the soul of a great Queen and

GOD SAVE THE KING!       Jim De Young 9/8/22

Sunday, August 28, 2022

LESSONS by Ian McEwan--Book review


 

LESSONS by Ian McEwan

Booker Prize winner Ian McEwan’s 18th novel, Lessons , is long (over 450 pages), and like many of his other works begins simply and grows more complex as it develops. The opening makes the novel look like a reverse Lolita in which an adult woman is obsessed by her 11 year old boy piano student (and he by her). Their sexual relation lasts for five years and only breaks up when he becomes 16 and she wants to spirit him off to Scotland to marry him. To some extent the lesson of that early experience is still hanging around at the finish, but it is only a fragment of the sad life of Roland Baines, whose given name might encourage some to remember the great French epic by that name.  

This Roland is a man who never seems to put sufficient postage on the letter of life. After he is abused by his piano teacher, we meander through sixty years of lost promise. A gifted classical pianist as a youth, Roland winds up as a tea-time piano player at a London Hotel. He yearns for an artistic life yet finds only idle travel, political futility, and failed liaisons. His other temporary jobs range from tennis coach to writer of incidental puff pieces for small magazines.  All of this is played out against the end of WWII and the historic changes brought about by Thatcher, Reagan, Gorbachev, Suez, Chernobyl, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Covid, and even January 6th. 

Finally, like Shakespeare’s Prospero, Roland Baines burns his books and settles into an old age fueled by something called The Multiple Worlds Theory.  This concept promotes the idea that “The world divides at every conceivable moment into an infinitude of invisible possibilities.”  Your fate may have been controlled by unconscious choices and it lowers your chance of having any real impact on the affairs of the world at large. You are also left in suspense as to what will come next.  It is better, as you reach your “hinge of life,” to settle back and leave the future to your grandchildren.   

The early publicity for the book asks this question. “How do global events beyond our control shape our lives and our memories? And what can we really learn from the traumas of the past? ”  If you want a profound illustration of these topics, this may be the book for you. If not, McEwen may not be your cup of tea. 

Jim De Young  8-28-22 

Featured Posts

Miracle of the Music Man

Mark Cabaniss’s Miracle of the Music Man does a fine job of stitching interviews and research into the  story of Meredith Willson’s life and...