A Hollywood Picture/No Hollywood Ending

For the past few weeks, I have been listening to friends of mine from the performing community argue about La La Land. Some say they LOVE it. Others were annoyed by the fact that the lead roles were not played by actual musical theatre performers. And others, like me, were just not moved.

Call me crazy, but when I go to see a musical, I expect music. I expect memorable music. Over the years, Stephen Sondheim has been ridiculed by harsh critics for not composing “hum-able tunes.” He even wrote a song about it for Merrily We Roll Along. Hum-able is not necessarily a compliment. Sondheim songs are hard. They are musically complex, and so are his impeccably written lyrics. But Sondheim songs do what they are supposed to do. They move the story, they give us insight into the mind of the character, and they move us in often very profound ways. And one more thing; they are also very beautiful. While they might not be hum-able, they are unforgettable. La La land’s music is delicate, pleasant, and entirely forgettable.

In many ways, this film reminded me of the The Actor, which won so many awards years ago, and then was promptly ignored. I rather feel that the same might happen with this piece. Like The Actor, this film deals with people in the business of entertaining, and the inevitable angst that goes along with suffering for your art. Writer/Director Damian Chazelle, who also wrote and directed Whiplash, clearly likes to write about the pain and suffering of gifted artists. He grapples with serious issues that artists encounter; harsh criticism, heartless people in powerful positions, relationships that must be shared with the artist’s devotion to his/her art, jealousy, you name it. The characters in La La Land did not have to literally bleed, as the young jazz musician did in Whiplash, but this movie offers no Hollywood ending like Singing in the Rain. Mind you, this picture also does not have a string of memorable, iconic song and dance numbers like Singing in the Rain does either. More’s the pity.

Although I did not care for her first few film performances, Emma Stone has grown on me over her last few films, especially her performance in Birdman. I have always been impressed with Ryan Gosling’s work ever since I saw him in the 2001 film Believer. He is charming in this, and so is Stone. Her huge, expressive eyes made the audition scene heartbreaking and excruciating. They have a lovely chemistry. Their singing and dancing skills are slightly better than you might see at a Junior High School musical, but then, as I already mentioned, the music is so lackluster, they were not given much to work with.

But let’s not forget that this is not NY NY, this is LA LA. And I don’t mind that they are not superb singers and dancers since they are both superb actors. And now I have opened the kettle of fish that is at the centre of conversation with my circle of theatrical friends and colleagues.

Whenever an actor, who is known only for straight, non-musical roles, sings and/or dances, the audience is often full of praise, adoration, and even shock. The idea that Christopher Walken can DANCE is still being discussed, even though he danced in Pennies From Heaven more than thirty years ago. People were astounded that Anne Hathaway actually sang in (the utterly terrible film) Les Miz. When Hugh Laurie put out an album of blues songs, people called him a genius. (He not only can speak with an American accent, he can play the guitar and SING.)

I can’t tell you how many times I have had a conversation with someone about my years performing in opera and musical theatre, and they ask, “Have you ever acted?”

Really?

Is it impossible to imagine that actors who sing are still actors? Why is there so much respect for “straight” actors who can handle music but so little for singers and dancers who can develop a character and tell their story? The fact that sometimes the character is singing or dancing does not mean they are doing that outside of defining their character and their place in the drama. The singing and dancing is part of the language they are using to bring that character across.

So, while I am not one of the people who is angry that the main characters in La La Land are not Broadway musical performers, my disappointment in the film is not connected with that. Ironically, J.K. Simmons, who won an Oscar for his performance in Whiplash and has a small, non-singing part in La La Land, DOES have a resume that includes Broadway musicals. But since most people are only familiar with his film and TV work, I am sure one day people will be shocked and delighted to find out that he can SING!

And here he is:

Starry, Starry Night

Meteor Shower, by Steve Martin,

Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven, CT

 

Steve Martin is a genius.

Martin’s stand-up comedy, as daring and edgy as it has been throughout the decades, has never been unkind, or cynical. He never shakes a finger at his audience, preferring to treat us with respect. Unlike many comics, he figures he can be honest and funny without putting us in an uncomfortable position. This doesn’t mean he provides us with  watered down content, it just means he gives us intelligent funny without making us squirm.

If his stand-up was all he gave us over the years, that would be plenty. If he had only provided us with unforgettable characters in films like, The Jerk, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, and Pennies From Heaven, we would be grateful for his contribution.  If he had simply been a terrific banjo player, screenwriter, staff writer, essayist, and author, that would be impressive enough. But lucky for us, he decided to also write plays.

I call him a genius, not simply because he has done so many things, but because he has done all those things, WELL. Really well. He earned his first Emmy for his writing on The Smothers Brothers Show in the late 60s. He won his five Grammy awards for comedy AND Bluegrass music, and he received an honorary Oscar in 2013. His musical, Bright Star, which he co-wrote with Edie Brickell, garnered three Tony nominations just last season.

His play,  Picasso at the Lapin Angile, which puts Picasso, Elvis, and Einstein in a quaint Paris bistro was very well received last season at The Long Wharf, and now we are treated to the time bending, Meteor Shower. Martin was present throughout the rehearsal process for both of these plays.  How lucky are we here in New Haven to be close to a theatre that is close to him?

On an evening when a Meteor Shower is expected, a couple arrives at the Southern California home of another couple, who punctuate their relationship with encouraging, pat phrases learned from self-help books and hours of marriage counseling. The phrases are recited while they hold hands, and look directly into each other’s eyes.  The visiting couple arrive with an eighty dollar bottle of wine and three eggplants wrapped in a bow.  The lives of the couples are poked and prodded by celestial activity, and when one meteor,  showers into their backyard, time and space become hilariously altered. Do-overs are possible, eighty dollar bottles of wine are reduced to a four buck bottle of swill, and an odd number of eggplants doesn’t seem like a silly gift, after all.

This is a wonderful cast. Patrick Breen (Galaxy Quest, Show me a Hero) is delightful in his deadpan. Arden Myrin’s seemingly helium-induced voice is charming as the quirky Corky. The visiting couple is played by Sophina Brown and Josh Samberg.  I have been enjoying Samberg for the past two seasons in The Affair on Showtime. His arrogance and bravado in the first act is replaced with uncertainty and lack of confidence in the second, and he is a joy to watch.

The Long Wharf season, once again promises to be stellar.  This kicked it off beautifully.

Dinner and a Movie/Brooklyn

Movie-Brooklyn

The novel Brooklyn by Colm Toibin was beautifully adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby to excellent reviews and three Academy Award nominations; Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Eilis is a young, intelligent woman living in a small town on the coast of Ireland in 1952.  Seeing that her prospects are minimal, her loving, older sister arranges for Eilis to immigrate to Brooklyn to start a new life. Helping her in the process, is an Irish Priest, played by Jim Broadbent. The Priest sets her up with a job at a high end department store, and finds her a place to live in a women’s boarding House, run by another fellow immigrant, played gorgeously by Julie Walters. (Rumor has it the BBC is planning a TV series about this boarding house with Walters playing the same part.)

Despite acute homesickness  and a cultural learning curve, Eilis thrives in Brooklyn, and meets a sincere  Italian-American plumber, who frequents Irish socials because he just “loves Irish girls.” Eilis and Tony Fiorello begin a serious relationship, and soon Eilis is even more important to Tony than the Brooklyn Dodgers.

A family emergency forces Eilis to return to Ireland, but she makes it clear that she intends to return to her life in Brooklyn after the visit. It is here that Eilis’s choices become difficult, as she sees more possibilities in her visit back than she did when she lived there. These choices are made more complicated by the fact that she has also meets a hometown boy (played by Domnhall Gleeson, son of actor Brendon Gleeson) and feelings begin to develop between the two, much to the delight of her mother, and the boy’s family.

Saoirse Ronan (Attonement, The Lovely Bones) is utterly delightful in the role of Eilis, she is also very beautiful.  At the age of only 22, she has a very impressive resume, and it is easy to see why.  I find her one of the more interesting women of her age group, and I look forward to watching her grow over the next few years. Brooklyn is the second film for which she has received Academy Award nominations, the other was for her work in Atonement. She has also received three BAFTA nominations, and experienced her first Broadway season this year in The Crucible.

The film is an Irish/Canadian co-production, and is beautifully filmed, for the most part, in Ireland, with a few New York locations. It is currently available on DVD, and is, of course, available on demand.

 

 

 

Dinner:

As you can see from the trailer, Eilis is a guest at the family table of her new boyfriend, Tony Fiorello. She receives tutoring in the art of tidy spaghetti eating from her fellow boarding-house mates.   So, in putting together a menu for a post or pre-dinner screening of the film, I was torn between presenting an Irish menu, or an Italian one.  But Brooklyn is a melting pot, so I think I have come up with a hybrid menu that should cover both rather nicely.

Pre-dinner Libations:

In 2006, a bar opened in Brooklyn serving a Pickle Back cocktail. Some people tell me that this cocktail has been around longer than 2006, but I have not yet seen evidence of this. For those of you who have never been to Brooklyn, let me just say that pickles are taken seriously in the delis of this New York borough.

Here is the very simple recipe:

One shot of Irish Whiskey (Jamison or Bushnell’s preferred)                                                           One shot of pickle juice.                                                                                                                                   You can just take some juice from your favorite jar of pickles, however, if you can’t stand the thought of your jarred pickles swimming without the aid of it’s delicious liquid, a company named, Van Holten’s offers bottles of pickle brine specifically for this cocktail.  Otherwise, just save your pickle juice from your empty dill pickle jars, and strain the juice through  a wire mesh. This just gives you a legitimate reason to eat more pickles.

Appetizer:  Asparagus with Parmesan cheese

In a shallow pan, boil around 2 inches of water, and gently add the asparagus and cook for around 3 minutes.

Take asparagus out, dump the water, and put the asparagus back in the pan with a generous amount of butter.  Once butter is melted, plate the asparagus, and top with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.  Place in front of guests, and feel good that your appetizer is, at least a little, healthy.

Main Course: Guiness Beef Stew

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 boneless beef chuck roast (2 to 3 pounds)  You can also use a small, bonelss lamb shoulder
  • 2 medium onions, sliced
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 Bottle of Guinness 
  • 1/2 Cup sliced mushrooms
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • Fresh Thyme
  • 8 Red Bliss Potatoes
  • Salt Pepper
  • 2 medium carrots, sliced
  • 2 cup water
  • Salt and Pepper
    1. In a Dutch oven, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium heat. Brown roast on all sides; remove from pan.
    2. In same pan, heat remaining oil. Add onions and garlic; cook and stir until tender. Deglaze pan with the Guinness (scrape up all that good stuff on the bottom of the pan)  Stir in mushrooms, brown sugar, . Return roast to pan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer, covered, 1-1/2 hours.
    3. Stir in remaining ingredients. Return to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer, covered, 15-25 minutes longer or until meat and vegetables are tender.

     

    Now would be a good time to start the movie.

    Fear not, for I did not forget dessert. I have just decided to provide an easy dessert that can be eaten on a comfy chairs and couches, while we watch the movie.

    Dessert: Unbelievably easy Cannoli Dip:

    Package of Wonton Wrappers cut in triangles

    Canola Oil for frying

    1/4 granulated sugar, mixed with a 1/2 a teaspoon of cinnamon

    Filling:

    3/4 Cup Ricotta Cheese, strained, over-night through a cheesecloth and squeezed dry

    3/4 Cup of Mascarpone Cheese

    1/4 Cup Powdered Sugar

    1/2 teaspoon Vanilla

    Small bag of mini-chocolate chips

    Pinch of Salt

    Beat with mixer until smooth. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours

    Heat oil in pan to 350 degrees. Put no more than 4 triangles in the oil, until they brown slightly and firm up. Dry on a paper towel, and  gently sprinkle plain sugar and cinnamon mixed together over the wrappers.  Working in batches. These certainly can be made ahead, as you will be serving them at room temperature, however, do not do this step the night before as they might get stale.

    Assemble individual plates, with some cannoli chips, and two ramekins; one filled with the filling, and one filled with mini-chocolate chips.

    Start up the movie, and end the evening with Irish Coffee, or some more Irish Whiskey without the coffee.

    Happy Viewing!

    ­

     

     

 

 

 

 

Jay/A better Obituary

(I was given an assignment to write a “better obituary” for a loved one. One that would speak more clearly and honestly than the usual ones you read in the paper.  I have submitted this about my brother.)

Jay Van Cott

Jay Van Cott died in his Dallas condo on July 4th, 2000, just shy of his 50th birthday.  Mr. Van Cott chose to celebrate the Independence Day weekend, by declaring his own independence from this earth, via suicide.

Mr. Van Cott was born in Hartford, CT in 1950, attended Branford High School, and graduated Suma cum Laude from Connecticut College with a double major in History and Art History.  He left behind approximately 3,000 hard cover books, all of which he read, a closet full at least 200 heavily starched business shirts, and somewhere around 1,000 silk ties. He also possessed a brilliant mind, a voracious appetite for knowledge, impeccable taste in art, and a sister who adored him.

His sister recalls that when they were young, he made a list of Academy Award winners in three categories; Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Actress. He called this list, his “Oscar Roster.” He made his sister, who was two years his junior, memorize the list, and he quizzed her regularly. On one occasion, he woke her up in the middle of the night, and said, “1961, Best Actress. And I will give you extra credit if you name the movie she won it for.” After she answered Elizabeth Taylor for Butterfield 8, he kissed her and told her he had the best sister in the world.

On a good day, Mr. Van Cott was the most charming person in the room. He was well read, naturally curious, and charismatic, so he could hold court on virtually any subject.  People leaned in to hear what he had to say. On a bad day, he could be quite cruel.

He was born at a time when homosexuals were encouraged to keep their sexual identity to themselves, so he became adept at lying about girlfriends that did not exist, and even fabricated a story about marrying his high school sweetheart to keep his elderly neighbor in Dallas entertained. Years of pretending to be something he was not took its toll on him, and his once handsome face was replaced with an ever present sneer.  His beautiful blue eyes, became dark and empty, and his laughter, which was once so readily available, was silenced.  Even his sister, whose job it was to keep him laughing, could no longer succeed at bringing it forward.

For over thirty years, Mr. Van Cott wrote in a daily journal. His handwriting was beautiful to behold, but nearly impossible to read without the aid of a magnifying glass. With the exception of the last month of his life, his daily entries were entered into large, leather-bound blank books, written with finely crafted pens. His final month’s submissions were found on loose leaf paper kept in a weathered, grey, three-ringed binder, and written with a Bic ballpoint.  The last sentence of his last journal, written, after what appeared to be, two solid days of no food or sleep, cup after cup of coffee, and several packs of cigarettes smoked down to the filter, offered no specific reason as to why he would then hang himself;  just that he felt he had to, before it was, “Too late.”

Jon English 1949-2016/Hurrah for the Pirate King

It is hard to lose a member of your tribe.  Learning of Jon English’s passing this week, was a stunning reminder that we are not as young as we used to be, and that all those people we have loved and cherished for so many years, are not going to be around for ever.

My ten years in Australia were the happiest of my life. I bounced from one show to the next, and spent my time on stage and off with some of the most intelligent, funny, loyal, talented, crazy, fun, loving people I have ever known. They were my family, and I loved my family.  I still do.

My first day of rehearsals for Pirates of Penzance was like any other first day of rehearsals. It feels very much like your first day at school; you are excited to begin a new adventure, and your optimism is tempered by a healthy dose of insecurity.

I usually play it safe on the first day.  I lay low. I sing with confidence but not bravado, I study the script and the score with a serious look on my face, and I am friendly and obliging with the other kids on the playground.  I don’t know what prompted me to do what I did not that first day, but somehow I felt I could get away with it with this new group of colleagues.

During this time, there were a series of ads on TV, for a company that renovated kitchens. The ads showed actual customers giving testimonials about their new kitchens, and talked about how the “chappies” left the place neat and tidy upon completion. The kitchen, in our rehearsal space, was rather spiffy, compared to what you usually see in rehearsal facilities, and I somehow plucked up enough courage to do an elaborate improv, giving a similar testimonial in a broad Australian accent, which ended in me saying that all it cost me was my first born, male child.  To my relief, it was rewarded with laughter from everyone but Jon.  Jon just stood there, nodding his head, and said with startling seriousness, “You are funny. You are very fucking funny.”

Pirates was a great show. The audience loved it, the critics adored it, and no one had more fun during the show than we did.  Jon, large in physical stature as well as legend, was our Pirate King on and off the stage.

The producers of the show were not the most generous I have ever worked with.  In fact, there were times when they were just downright cheap.  When we were told that we would receive no discount for any of the show memorabilia that they sold at the box office, Jon bought every cast member a T-Shirt. More than once, when attempting to pay a tab at the theatre bar, we were told Mr. English took care of it.

Since Jon and I both lived west of downtown Sydney, during our Sydney season, Jon picked me up on his way to the theatre, and also drove me back home. During this time, I was having relationship difficulties with the man I was living with, and Jon frequently provided me with a shoulder to cry upon when I needed one.

But there was also much laughter. One incident in Perth stands out particularly, when four of us were having breakfast in a local greasy spoon.  The owner of the restaurant was a big fan of Jon’s and he kept bringing us more food than we ordered, and would not stop, even though Jon begged him to do so.  At one point, he came over to the table with a massive box of baklava. The four of us laughed so hard, I spit my tea out of my mouth onto the wall of the booth.  I will never forget the look on Jon’s face as he screamed, “Tea is coming out of your nose!”  Another huge wave of laughter overtook us as we took in that information.  We could not even finish the food we HAD ordered, we were laughing so hard. The laughter only slightly subsided when we realized we had been charged for all the food we neither ordered nor wanted.

A key plot point in Pirates has to do with the character of Frederick  being born during a leap year.  So this year, when we had that extra day in February, I immediately thought of Simon Gallaher, who brilliantly brought Frederick to life in our production. So when Simon posted a familiar photo of the two of them on his Facebook page this past week,  I assumed I would be reading something fun having to do with a leap year birthday party.  When I realized that Simon’s post announced Jon’s passing, I foolishly started googling to prove that he was wrong. Sadly, I realized that the report was accurate, and we had lost our Pirate King.

I don’t know how many times my fellow cast members and I have talked about how we should have a reunion. We have now lost a few mates from that production, so regret has hit sharply at our lack of initiative. I hope I do get a chance to see my Pirates family again, and we can pour the Pirate Sherry.  It would be a glorious thing.  Hurrah for the Pirate King.

 

http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/video/2016/apr/05/jon-english-memorial-family-friends-and-fans-remember-performer-video

 

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/jon-english-farewelled-at-sydneys-capitol-theatre/news-story/8014d5b3ade263a687b4fbf2aedb8e6e

 

 

 

 

 

Actors who sing/Singers who act

 

Are all opera singers good actors?  Sadly, no.  Nathalie Desplat. Maria Callas, Renee Flemming, are some notable singers who have been applauded for their acting skills. Interestingly, all three of those sopranos have acted outside the opera stage.  Callas played Medea in Pasolini’s film of the same name, and Desplat originally trained as an actor before realizing she also had a voice. The gorgeous Renee Flemming made her Broadway debut just last year, in a non musical, that garnered some lovely reviews for a solid comedic performance of an over the top opera singer.

Certainly there have been musical theatre performers who moved on from opera to theatre. This is the usual scenario for performers who weigh singing AND acting to be of equal import. Harve Presnell, who began as an opera singer, performed in movie musicals, like The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and Paint Your Wagon, and found critical acclaim in the third act of his life in dramatic roles; most notably, in the movie Fargo.

Marco Berti and the Burden of Success

This weekend I attended the HD Broadcast of Puccini’s Turandot. This lavish Zefferelli production has been a mainstay in the Met repertoire for almost 30 years.  It is unapologetic in its over the top treatment of the last opera Puccini wrote.  So grand is this production, that any opera singer would be forgiven for a large, over the top performance. Which is one reason why Marco Berti’s detached, low energy, distracted performance seemed so disturbingly out of place.

Someone must have told Signor Berti he only has to work when he is singing.  Why else would he hold the expression of a man looking at a bus schedule when Liu (played gloriously by Anita Hartig) is committing suicide right in front of him?

I was thinking that he was perhaps, saving himself, for the Nessun Dorma that was to come in the final act.  If that was the case, he apparently did not save enough.  He has this horrible vocal habit of hitting a lower note to bounce up to the high note, not once, not twice, but EACH AND EVERY time he hit a high note.  His Nessun Dorma was as disconnected as the rest of his performance,  and that prompted the couple sitting next to me to begin swearing.  Where is a head of cabbage when you need one?

Hey, it’s a Big Room

Performing on a massive  stage, like that of the Metropolitan Opera requires a large performance.  Subtlety does not travel beyond the pit in a venue of this size.  We tend to forgive opera singers when their gestures are exaggerated,  even if the performance journeys into the melodramatic.  Since operas are often built upon totally implausible plot lines, the singers are given the difficult task to draw the audience into a world of make believe, while delivering a vocal performance of repertoire that was written for a high level of virtuosity. It ain’t easy.

The HD broadcasts, give opera fans a close up view of the faces of the people on that stage, and THAT is a great opportunity for the audience.  We can see the eyes, the hands, the sweat on their brow.  We can breathe with them.  And while the soloists do the heavy lifting, we also see the faces of the unsung heroes of the opera stage; the chorus.

The Met chorus is a large group of completely committed, hard working, uncompromising, well trained, totally dedicated people, whose names we will never know.  When you compare these wonderful people to the snooze fest that was Marco Berti, it does make you stop and think.

 

 

 

 

 

Pearl Fishers

Going to the Metropolitan Opera is a wonderful thing.  I am happy to say that I have attended many operas in this wonderful place, and although I live close to New York, I chose to watch the HD broadcast at a local movie theatre this past weekend, and I have to say, it was a heck of a good time.  But let’s talk about the opera itself, first.

The last time the Met presented The Pearl Fishers, Caruso played the part of Nadir. That was over one hundred years ago.  Just WHY they waited so long to bring forth another production, I cannot tell you. However, it might have been worth the wait when you consider the high tech options now available to live theatre.  And, the Met took full advantage of many of these options to excellent results.  From the overture, where we see pearl divers swimming through the deep water, to the tsunami, when the deep waters devastate the village, we are treated to the very best that modern theatrical special effects can offer.

The duet between the two male leads in the Pearl Fishers, is one of the most beloved duets in operatic repertoire.  And with good reason. It is sumptuous.  Here, have a listen:

 

 

Many consider this the best recording of the duet.

The Met cast gives us Mariusz Kwiecien in the role of Zurga, and Matthew Polenazani as Nadir.  Their performance left this blogger in tears.

Nadir’s aria, is also a thing of great beauty.  Here is a performance by Nicolai Gedda.

 

Apparently, Diana Damrau was the one who encouraged the Met to bring this production (which began in London) to the Met.  Ms. Damrau was a lovely Leila, and her high notes are gorgeous. Her real life husband, Nicolas Teste played the high priest Nourabad.  (lucky girl)