My NYFF 2016

October 17, 2016

unknownThe evolution of movie distribution is starting to affect my behavior at film fests. Tech has all of a sudden gotten personal.

For the first time in the New York Film Festival’s 54-year history, it opened with a documentary, Ava DuVernay’s 13TH, a searing look at the dysfunctional American prison system — and I didn’t lift a finger to attend. (N.B.: I’ve seen it now, it’s quite powerful, but the following comments aren’t about the quality of the work.) This picture is distributed by Netflix and became available for streaming while the fest was still underway. I also knew the docs HAMILTON’S AMERICA and GIMME DANGER were headed for streaming or PBS before the month was out. This choice has arisen before, at Sundance. But Sundance happens to happen in midwinter, a fallow period on the annual movie schedule. The broad-release windows are far enough away that at high altitude it seems worth it to check out stuff like WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? or FREEDOM SUMMER then and there. (I would never want to miss the next SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN by so much as a day.) But in the hipness of time, by NYFF’s autumn I want to know in advance the distributor and the release pattern before I give up a precious festival slot. Lots of previous NYFF entries have debuted theatrically within days of their fest screenings — even streamers still need that public release for notoriety and Oscar qualification — but there’s something more immediate about being able to punch it up at home on your own schedule. You may never ever do that. Most Netflix queues are very long. Later, gater. (A film-sprocket joke.) But if that recent additional option dampens attendance at certain fest screenings, it’ll be interesting to see if/how that affects selection and programming in the future. As always, one never knows, do one?

Here’s my take on the eleven films I saw this year, in order of screening:

manchester-seaMANCHESTER BY THE SEA**** Kenneth Lonergan is becoming more and more surefooted, both at the keyboard and the viewfinder. This is a subtle, confident meditation on grief and loss with frequent brushstrokes of levity, a movie made with such assurance that the story seems inevitable. Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a morose handyman in Boston who is so tightly wound that early on, when he thinks two guys in a bar are literally looking at him the wrong way, he clocks them both. The rest of the picture gracefully and patiently shows us why: Lee has barely lived through an almost unutterable tragedy and now faces yet another upending trauma. The hollow look, the way he recoils from other human beings, the barren brokenness is off-putting at first, but as we discover details (shown in unannounced flashbacks, each calmly cut together as if it were the next present-day scene) the character gains dimension and color, served perfectly by Affleck’s trademark laconic mumble. The New England setting looks gorgeous, and a superb supporting cast, led by Lucas Hedges as a nephew whose path intersects with Lee’s, never falters, not even when a well-known star shows up for a cameo. Lonergan has come a long way since YOU CAN COUNT ON ME; his screenplay is sophisticated enough to deliver some redemption while reminding us that not everything in life can be tied up with a neat little bow, not even in the movies.

toni-erdmann-19-rcm0x1920uTONI ERDMANN**** A beauty that marches to its own drummer, Maren Ade’s new film is a screwball comedy about an ingratiating screwball, played by the marvelous (and that’s the word) Peter Simonischek. It’s also an intimate father-daughter story with real resonance, thanks to Sandra Huller’s brave, sensitive performance. Winfried is a lumbering freethinker who is always looking for the next practical joke, while Ines climbs the corporate ladder in her tailored black pantsuits. They seem to be emotional oil and water, and the film is essentially Winfried’s attempt at connection, but that makes it sound far too stuffy. The comic and dramatic tracks unfold simultaneously; we’re never far from the proverbial spoonful of sugar. There are piles of hilarious surprises, so I mustn’t reveal too much more, but let’s just say that the appearance and even identity of the title character gets a huge laugh. This film was the darllng of Cannes this year and the New York audience also ate it up. At one point they were shrieking so loudly that they would have missed a great topping line if not for the subtitle (it’s mostly in German, but there’s enough English to keep us off balance). That came during a bravura five-minute sequence toward the end that just might go down in movie comedy history. At 2:42 I found it a tad indulgent, but patience earns a huge profit.

paterson-credit-mary-cybulski-cannes-film-festivalPATERSON*** (U.S. Premiere) A new Jim Jarmusch flick is always of interest and this year NYFF has two, including GIMME DANGER, a documentary about Iggy & the Stooges. That subject seems an odd fit for Jarmusch’s dialed-back style, but there it is. This one is more in the zone. Adam Driver plays a city bus driver who scribbles poetry in his free moments. His name is Paterson and he lives in Paterson, New Jersey, just as did his idol William Carlos Williams, whose famous epic poem is called—but you guess. We spend a week with Paterson, his loving but ditzy wife (the pixieish Golshifteh Farahani) and their scene-stealing English bulldog Marvin, and the days are essentially the same. He gets up, eats Cheerios, walks to the depot, writes for a few minutes, drives all day (his recreation is eavesdropping: folks, the bus driver can hear you), goes home, has dinner, walks Marvin past a bar where he enjoys one beer, and heads back for bed. Paterson’s patience is inexhaustible: his wife burbles with out-of-reach ideas and is visually fixated on black-and-white designs on everything from shower curtains to cupcakes. He’s more polite than you would be on his first bite of her dinnertime cheddar-and-broccoli pie. The only conflict comes from people around him, until Marvin causes a heartbreaking event. We also hear Paterson narrate some of his poetry — it’s good, written for the movie by a ringer — and none of this would work if we didn’t buy that. Jarmusch specializes in finding the strangeness in normalcy, and there’s so much going on just to one side of the principals, barely in frame: for example, the offhand appearances of different sets of twins seems somehow foreboding, but it’s played as nothing more than a pattern recognizable to a poet. This is not for the antsy viewer, but it encourages us to keep our eyes and ears open to the wonders around us, because they are definitely there.

ukr_9mar150186_rgb-0-2000-0-1125-cropCERTAIN WOMEN*** A soft, sensitive melding of Maile Meloy stories, faintly connecting in the screenplay of director Kelly Reichardt. We are in Nowhere, Montana; the most urban place we see is Livingston, population high four figures. Three dramatic tracks follow a lawyer (Laura Dern) dogged by a disgruntled client (Jared Harris), a woman (Michelle Williams) whose family is building its own home, and another attorney (Kristen Stewart) who endures an eight-hour round trip from Livingston into the country to teach a weekly class in school law and infatuates an introverted ranch hand (Lily Gladstone, the movie’s real find). All the women are in different emotional places and want different things, but they each have to reach down and summon determination, even the quiet horsewoman who can barely look her idol in the face. There are thin threads beyond setting which join the tales: for example, at one point a character from another story walks through in the background, out of focus and casually ignored. The acting is fine all around, but whenever she appears you can’t take your eyes off Ms. Gladstone, even though she barely speaks and only changes expression very subtly; her attraction isn’t played as overtly sexual but you can definitely feel the heat. This performance is a career-maker.

arton4596JULIETA**** Another adaptation of short stories, this time from Alice Munro — realized by none other than Pedro Almodovar. It depicts the tumultuous events in a Madrid woman’s life extending some thirty years, and the title role is taken by two different actresses. We meet Julieta at age 50, played by Emma Suarez as a middle-aged beauty whose face is weary and drawn with emotional pain. After a chance meeting with an old friend, she abruptly disappoints her lover by changing their long-standing plans and sits down to write to her estranged daughter, beginning with the fateful night she met the girl’s father 25 years ago. Julieta at 25 is played by the glorious Adriana Ugarte, and gradually we learn the reasons for her torment and the split with the daughter. Almodovar manages to make the ladies appear to be the same person through gradual aging and a beautiful handoff some years later, in a defining visual moment that the French call a coup de cinema: Ugarte’s hair is being toweled off after a bath, but when the towel is removed, it’s Suarez once again in a near-perfect fit. Wow. There is some humor (notably from Almodovar regular Rossy de Palma as a Miss-Gulchian housekeeper), but much less of the wit and wackiness we’ve come to expect from the maestro, replaced here by portent and more drama, less melo. It’s seamless filmmaking that respects its audience by allowing loose ends to dangle until the moment their joining is needed. I’m not familiar with the source material, so I can’t speak to Almodovar’s merging of three Munro stories or shifting the setting from Canada to Spain, but it looks like it was meant just for him.

thumb_1892_media_image_1144x724PERSONAL SHOPPER** (U.S. Premiere) Olivier Assayas follows up CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA by bringing back Kristen Stewart as yet another assistant, who desultorily selects and buys haute couture for a wealthy Parisian woman. She has just lost her beloved twin brother to a congenital heart condition which she shares. She also believes herself to be a medium. These three premises get jingle-jangled together, none too neatly, as Assayas attempts a modern-day ghost story. The arm’s-length attitude of Stewart’s one-note performance, while suitably intense, prevents us from getting inside her head or caring about what happens to her. There’s enough arty murkiness to cause post-screening arguments over what we’ve just seen. Assayas is certainly talented: things go bump in the night with style and tension, and believe it or not, a suspenseful, eerie scene is composed almost entirely of text messages on a smartphone. But while I admired the attempt to keep so many dramatic balls in the air at once, I couldn’t buy the end result. Too bad: I loved Assayas’s version of DAY FOR NIGHT, 1996’s IRMA VEP.

20th-century-women20th CENTURY WOMEN**** (Festival Centerpiece, World Premiere) A near-perfect invocation of a little-regarded time and place: Santa Barbara, 1979. The last vestiges of the counterculture have morphed into New Wave posing, and Ronald Reagan waits in the wings. No cell phones, no Internet, no MTV. Everybody still smokes. But life goes on in the rambling house of an unusual extended family, encompassing room renters and hangers-on. Mike Mills’s attention to period detail sets the stage wonderfully for a career performance by Annette Bening as the crash pad’s single-mother matriarch: still beautiful but cosmetically mature, she shines with life-force. The other two 20th-century women are fire-haired punk tenant Greta Gerwig and too-experienced teen Elle Fanning, who sneaks over from her own house to sleep — just snooze, no sex — with Bening’s hormonal son (a sensational Lucas Jade Zumann). A freelance carpenter (Billy Crudup) is also in the house and the story mix. I loved the amount of attention paid to the son’s dramatic arc: he’s a good boy who is nevertheless kicking at his stall, and his rebellious yet devoted relationship to his mom feels genuine. For fogeys like me, it’s painful to accept that 1979 is far enough gone to actually inspire nostalgia, but it is and does. A real crowd-pleaser that ought to have a nice commercial life.

thumb_1896_media_image_1144x724SIERANEVADA**** (U.S. Premiere) A pitch-black comedy about a dysfunctional family which gathers in its deceased patriarch’s Bucharest apartment to send off the old man with rituals, food and wine. The range of (mostly) comic clashes and conspiracy is so broad that at one point the camera rests in the middle of a hall and simply pans left and right as one or another door opens with the latest crisis. Other times the camera is locked down for ten minutes or so as the actors, I assume, improvise. The net effect is that it all appears to be happening in real time in front of us as if we’re another guest, even when we briefly leave the apartment at one point. The feast, which looks delicious, is delayed and delayed because a ritual must first be performed, and the priest is late. When he finally arrives, his chants and prayers are interminable and some guests are dying from hunger before he issues his laugh-out-loud exit line: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” I’m partial to movies like this because we can all recognize aspects of our own families, whether we’re related by blood or by lot: humanity is international. Cristi Puiu (THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU) has a twinkle in his eye, unlike several quarrelsome family members. At 2:53 it’s way too long (that trip outside isn’t really necessary; the crucial monologue could have been staged indoors), but I loved it anyway. We never find out the meaning of the title.

ob_ce416f_le-fils-de-joseph-8-eugene-green-amalrSON OF JOSEPH*** (U.S. Premiere) Bent spirituality and baroque satire from Eugene Green, a drama about a disillusioned, rebellious Parisian kid’s search for his, later just a, father. Satisfyingly skewered is the French publishing industry (“nothing is invented,” M. Green insisted afterward), as the kid discovers a high-rolling caddish book man is his long-deserted biological pop. Then he meets someone better, unaware that he’s the big shot’s brother. The director has a distinctive way of staging what would normally be intimate, personal scenes with austerity of language and motion; at times it’s anti-natural, almost as if we’re watching animatronics. (This oddly stilted effect is evidently even more pronounced to French speakers.) He also winkingly overlays the story with a Biblical subtext expressed in “chapters,” down to the ass which accompanies “Joseph” and “Marie” on a fateful journey toward the end. It’s too mannered to be a classic, but it’s quite enjoyable, pleasantly perverse in its own sweet way.

elle-cannesELLE*** (U.S. Premiere) Paul Verhoeven’s first feature in ten years, and first ever in French (it’s France’s submission for next year’s foreign-language Academy Award), is a genre-bender that really coaxes the gamut of emotions from its audience. It’s either a comedy with a very dark subtext or (my take) a very dark movie with some funny stuff in it. It also shares DNA with whodunits and thrillers, but it’s not really that either. As Verhoeven warned us before the screening, this film can be painful to watch at times. Before we’ve even caught our breath, the very first sequence depicts a violent rape. We are left completely at sea, unable to understand the victim’s oddly muted reaction. She is played incandescently by Isabelle Huppert, whose character is a video-game executive and the daughter of a reviled mass murderer: whew! I don’t mean any criticism when I say this story is populated by outrageous and awful human beings — that’s on purpose — but afterward we struggled to think of one “good guy” at all. (I think there’s only one in the entire flick. After you see it, I’ll tell you who.) While the credits were rolling I was thinking about this dramatic miasma and I would have given only two stars, which I consider a negative evaluation, because I was sinking under so much funk at that point. But we kept talking about it while waiting for our last movie (I heart film fests), and I realized that Verhoeven’s deliberate untidiness — he’d said afterward that he left some story threads unresolved so the audience could fill them in on their own — was actually a great strength. The more I thought about ELLE afterward, the more I auto-revised my opinion. (Shades of the French New Wave!) By the time the Oscars roll around, I may even wish another star upon it in hindsight. Be warned: this movie plays rough. But look how it affected me.

lost-city-of-z-charlie-hunnam-and-tom-hollandTHE LOST CITY OF Z*** (Festival Closing Night, World Premiere) An old-fashioned widescreen epic, a “movie movie” like they used to make, this is the story of Lt. Col. Percy Fawcett and his nearly lifelong obsession with a lost city in the Amazon rain forest. We pick him up as a young turn-of-the-century British officer who is sent on a mapmaking mission to ward off a looming dispute between Bolivia and Brazil. The jungle scenes are raw and exciting, and after some real scares Fawcett, whose noble chin belongs to a very capable Charlie Hunnam, comes to respect and admire the native people, especially when he finds evidence of a superior technology that was evidently developed in antiquity and in isolation. His expeditions back to “Amazonia” span nearly thirty years and are interleaved with stretches of life at home and some harrowing duty in the trenches of World War I; both Hunnam and wife Sienna Miller age very well, assisted by convincing makeup. It’s meant to be a grand adventure in the wild combined with gentlemen’s discourse by the stuffed shirts in England, sort of the PBS version of Indiana Jones. One can quibble with the balance because the movie really comes alive when we return to the jungle, again and again. In the tradition of such spectacles, the job of the director is to stay out of the way, and James Gray lets us concentrate on the story and forget about the production, except for one aspect, and here I must make a filmlover’s confession. This piece was shot on 35mm film and proudly projected that way for the Alice Tully Hall audience, but I have to say it: whether I’ve been desensitized or simply aging, I prefer digital projection. Celluloid looks great for brightly lit exteriors, and Darius Khondji’s landscapes earn oohs and aahs throughout. But for low-light scenes, especially interiors, the image is softer and it’s easy to be distracted by reel-change cue dots and other degradation on the film stock, even though it should have been the first time through the projector for this print. Some people like the look, just as some prefer to hear music from a needle vibrating on vinyl (and they may have a point). I don’t mind any perceived “harshness,” and at my age I want the image razor-sharp. It may be unhip of me but it matters for real: we wanted to check a musical piece and we couldn’t make out the teensy type as the end credits rolled by. It was slightly out of focus and thus illegible at the world premiere. This film is a nice diversion, a respectful and capable throwback of a production with great support by Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson (hey, Kristen Stewart’s not the only teen vampire turning into a real actor!), but sue me: I bet it’ll look even better on Blu-Ray.

WISH I’D SEEN: BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK, MOONLIGHT, MY ENTIRE HIGH SCHOOL SINKING INTO THE SEA, ONE-EYED JACKS (on the big screen)

Other NYFF Reports

2015   2014


Stand-Up Tragedy

September 23, 2016

1458047088866It’s even worse.

When I first wrote about standing-ovation-creep on this page more than six years ago, it was an irritation, like a skin rash you just have to live with. Since then, it’s become an out-and-out pandemic, infecting more and more theatre audiences in New York — and, I’d be willing to bet, where you live too, because this virus is issuing forth from the heartland.

Let’s restate a few caveats. A performance that brings an audience to its feet with gratitude is a wonderful thing, and once upon a time such a spontaneous eruption swelled the cast and crew with pride precisely because it was so rare. I have witnessed these thrilling occasions — but fewer times than I have fingers. (My most recent was HAMILTON.) However, the days when you could actually reward a magnificent production beyond mere seated applause are long gone, vanished before my very eyes.

I recognize that audience behavior evolves over time. Beatles aside, the loudest sound in an Ed Sullivan or Johnny Carson audience was the ol’ two-fingered whistle. But watch Colbert or Maher today, and you’ll hear people — usually women — shriek where they used to laugh. I’m sure that excited reaction is a bleed-over from pop music concerts, and it’s fine for a talk show where revving the crowd up to paroxysmal frenzy is part of the trick. Thing is, we’re starting to hear the whooooooooos for stage musical numbers, even “this is my way of saying I think that’s funny” in the more raucous comedies. This is a second cousin to stand-up fever.

It’s very expensive to visit New York, even before the theater sticks out its palm for you to cross so lavishly. If you go to a Broadway show, you expect to see transcendence; it had better be better than what your community theater can pull off. Some shows are certainly lesser than others, but they are all of professional caliber, and if you’re not used to that, damn near anything can impress you, especially if it features someone you’ve seen in movies or on tv. I believe that’s where the ubiquitous standing O has come from: visitors from out of town. My latest piece of evidence: I was sitting in a side box for AN AMERICAN IN PARIS a couple weeks ago, so I was able to watch the crowd. The standing ovation that day was definitely led by people in shorts and sandals.

Why should I even care about whether people jump to their feet or not? They’re just being nice, get off their backs! Two reasons. One, as stated above, when it happens every time, the gesture is demeaned: performers will never again be able to earn a legitimate standing O, since they will automatically receive one simply by getting to the end of Act II. Two, I enjoy watching actors take their curtain calls, but unless I stand as well (to my shame, I’ve done it a few times) all I can see is a butt from the previous row. Usually I remain seated anyway. It’s not because I didn’t like the show; it’s because it didn’t deserve a standing ovation!

Here’s how bad it’s gotten. The other night I went down to 59E59, the only off-Broadway theater in rational walking distance from my house, to see a surrealistic farce called BEARS IN SPACE, part of a citywide Irish theatre festival. Delightful show: four young guys using deliberately low-tech theatricality and ratty hand-and-rod puppets, snarky as hell but telling a story that turned out to be very sweet. (One of them was Jack Gleeson, GAME OF THRONES’s sadistic King Joffrey, but in one section he played that notorious imperiousness for laughs.) The audience — couldn’t have been 200 people — were attentive, laughing where they should, etc. They loved the show. (I did too.) The boys wound it up and the applause was vigorous, energetic. As I was joining them in banging my hands together, something was vaguely bothersome. WTF? Finally it struck me. Nobody in the appreciative, giddy audience had risen to their feet! I self-flagellated on the walk home (what, no standing O means you’re missing something, dickweed?) and sat down to write this piece, my first sequel. Dudes and dudettes, standing ovations are WAY WAY WAY too common, but there’s nothing anybody can do. Their function as a meaningful way to communicate back to the stage is all over.

img_14609/27/16: Last night, at the new production of THE FRONT PAGE (it was that or the Clinton-Trump “debate”), before the inevitable tumultuous standing ovation, came some “sitting ovations,” or entrance applause, for everybody the audience recognized: Jefferson Mays, John Slattery, John Goodman, Robert Morse, Nathan Lane, even Holland Taylor. This show is a trifle, an amusing limited run for holiday-season tourists, slathered with stars, and it did make me laugh a few times. But to the adoring audience, it killed. A standing O was locked in the moment they opened their programs, and every comment I overheard afterward reflected a mind duly blown. But I won’t play the snob card: New York needs their money.

11/23/16: Yes, the cast of the final play in the “Gabriel Family Trilogy” did a wonderful job, but DAMN! Even most of the audience in a little 200-seater upstairs at the Public felt the need to hit their feet. Fortunately we were sitting in the first row, and I think I caught a couple of curtain-call winks — thanks for giving us an enthusiastic response but not fucking standing up! — or maybe it was just my imagination. I mimed applause to Jay O. Russell in the lobby as we were filing out and he seemed to enjoy it. But the war’s over. Automatic standing Os and Trump have each won.


The Stage, On The Page

April 12, 2016

The-Secret-Life-of-American-Musicals-by-Jack-ViertelThe Broadway musical is as American an art form as jazz or the blues, and it has patriotically survived the recent British invasion led by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh. The term “musical comedy” has become rather archaic, since we find very little humor (but there is some) in bombastic productions like LES MISERABLES or THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Yet troupers are still singing and dancing on the Great White Way, and to record-setting business, too; the New York “legit” theater has never been healthier.

I know a few people who don’t like musicals on principle. It annoys them whenever a character breaks into the story to sing: it’s unnatural, unrealistic, even silly. (Now when a hobbit puts on a magic ring to turn invisible, they’re perfectly happy. But we all have our own contradictions, don’t we?) My niece, one of the most devoted Broadway fans I know, attends nothing but musicals. But to non-aficionados they’re all pretty much the same, distinguishable only by the setting or, more rarely, by the intrusion of a contemporary type of music (HAIR, RENT, HAMILTON). A devotee would certainly disagree, but how many of them have sat down and truly thought it through? Any presentation that demands the attention of an audience for nearly three hours has to lead it on some kind of narrative ride. My biggest takeaway from an eye-opening new book is how much commonality most well-made musicals share, even when very creative people are racking their brains for brand new ways to surprise and delight the folks in the seats.

There are general principles that most of the best, longest-lasting musicals observe, and they are deconstructed for you in THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN MUSICAL by Jack Viertel. It’s packed with anecdotes and lore, authoritative without forgetting to be fun, the best general-audience guide to “how Broadway shows are built” (per the subtitle) that I’ve ever encountered. Mr. Viertel is senior vice president of Jujamcyn Theaters, one of the three big Broadway owner/producers (see more below), and he has also been a dramaturg and newspaper critic. Over a long career he’s worked with both the creators and the landlords, combining an expert’s breadth of knowledge with a fan’s appreciation and enthusiasm. I used to joke that I was the only straight man in New York who saves all his Playbills. Evidently I was mistaken.

“Building” a musical, no matter what kind, requires some basic materials. When the curtain rises, the audience immediately needs to know, Where are we? Who are these people? How can I tell them apart? And why should I care? From there, a remarkable number of classic pieces — including the current hottest ticket in the world, HAMILTON — use similar patterns to create interest and pleasure in their audiences. “It’s only in hindsight that the patterns emerge,” Mr. Viertel writes, and he takes pains to assure us that writers and composers are not working from a cookie-cutter template. But in his hands it’s amazing to compare creative solutions that achieve common goals. Not all hit shows follow these patterns, and not every show contains every single one, but there’s much more agreement on what the author calls the “classic chassis” than you’d expect at first thought.

The book is organized like a two-act show. From the overture to the curtain call, Mr. Viertel illustrates structure with historical examples, trivia, and backstage color told with savvy assuredness. He shows how the “song plot” advances storytelling: despite my friends’ distaste, there are perfectly valid reasons why somebody starts singing. We learn about the “I want” song, which establishes a difficult goal (like “My Shot” in HAMILTON); the conditional love song (there’s a dramatic reason it’s “If I Loved You” in CAROUSEL instead of just “I Love You”); the “noise,” which uses comedy and kinetics to recharge the audience in the third or fourth song slot (“Hasa Diga Eebowai” in THE BOOK OF MORMON); the song which is basically there so a big star can shine; the Main Event, sometimes called the “11 o’clock number”; and lots more. You find yourself nodding your head at aspects of the musical experience that you’ve frequently seen but never really noticed, like the Second Couple (Will Parker and Ado Annie in OKLAHOMA!, Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide in GUYS AND DOLLS) which provides counterpoint to, and frequently comic relief from, the romantic leads. It’s a little like finding out how a magic trick works, but the net effect is to make you appreciate originality even more.

razzleMr. Viertel’s book is about the show. A second one is about the business. RAZZLE DAZZLE by Michael Riedel recounts the colorful, sometimes oddball history of the people who own the Broadway houses and battle each other for the best bookings. Mr. Riedel has been the wildly popular theater columnist for the New York Post for nearly twenty years; he’s probably the second most influential journalist in the field, just behind the lead critic for the New York Times. He is impressively well plugged in, and has either witnessed or heard first-hand accounts of some hair-greying events in a wobbly industry that was almost snuffed out by the slow deterioration of its Times Square neighborhood by the mid-Seventies. Now, of course, Times Square, most notably the formerly notorious 42nd Street, has been transformed into a booming, profitable family destination — and the Broadway theater owners had a great deal to do with it.

A pause for some definitions. Despite how it sounds, the difference between a “Broadway” and “off-Broadway” production is not location, but the number of seats in the theater. Five hundred and above makes it a “Broadway” house, no matter what’s playing there. One hundred to 499, “off-Broadway.” Below 100, “off-off-Broadway.” At Lincoln Center, for example, the Vivian Beaumont Theater, current home to THE KING AND I, is “on Broadway.” Under the same roof, down one flight of stairs, is the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, much more intimate and thus “off-Broadway.” And neither one of them is located in the Times Square “theater district.” So it’s the auditorium, not the address. There are exceptions, like Carnegie Hall, which usually hosts individual musical performances rather than scripted theatre; and the outdoor Delacorte Theater in Central Park, home only to two “free Shakespeare in the Park” shows each summer.

This distinction isn’t simply academic. As you have probably guessed, money is involved. The actors, musicians and backstage crew work under different contracts depending on the producer’s potential gross. Furthermore, some Broadway houses are physically much smaller than others, so they tend to book straight plays, where every cost is more modest, and those productions can certainly yield profitable hits too. But big brassy shows, in the largest theaters, are where the real money is and where the tourists flock. If you’re waiting for discount tickets at the TKTS booth in Duffy Square and you fancy a play, go straight to the far window. Non-musicals only. Nobody’s there. Smaller doesn’t equal worse: much of the most exciting theatre in New York, including a few reduced-scale musicals, is performed off-Broadway. But razzling-dazzling singing and dancing in Broadway-sized houses is what each of these books is overwhelmingly about.

Mr. Riedel chronicles the rise of the Shubert family, Broadway’s biggest landlord, beginning with its hardscrabble upstate origins and finally its brave move into New York City, where a loose consortium actually referred to as “the Syndicate” — its founders were the five largest theater owners at the turn of the century, who controlled the best houses in the biggest cities across America — intimidated its rube competition as surely as Vito Corleone and his boardroom peers. We watch the bold, determined Shuberts buy and build, and suffer its own clan’s fools as must any family-run company. On July 7, 1972, the feckless, drunken surviving Shubert was deposed as head of the Shubert Foundation, which legally owns the theaters, by family lawyers Bernard B. Jacobs and Gerald Schoenfeld. “Bernie and Jerry” then became responsible for the Shubert Organization’s greatest years, and for a notable era were the most powerful producers on Broadway. Mr. Riedel has the most intimate access to these people, and my main beef is that he gives the other players short shrift. But after all, the Shuberts are arguably where the action is. They are far and away the largest landlord, with 17 Broadway theaters. The competing Nederlander organization owns 9, and Jujamcyn (Mr. Viertel’s employer, which is mentioned here only in passing) has 5.

The colorful business story is interspersed with fascinating producers’-eye views of how a few landmark shows (at least in a business sense) made their way to the stage: EQUUS, A CHORUS LINE, DREAMGIRLS, CATS, NINE, CHESS, 42ND STREET, and more. Creative talents like Michael Bennett and Andrew Lloyd Webber deal with both adulation and ignominy before our eyes. And the long slog toward the desperately needed rejuvenation of Times Square — featuring Atlanta architect John Portman, he of the glass elevators, and his mammoth Marriott Marquis Hotel, which plants a gentrifying flag in the seedy district (its lobby is five floors above the hoi polloi at street level, and there’s a Broadway theater inside the hotel) — becomes a life-and-death struggle from the producers’ point of view. (“Where’s Broadway going to go? New Jersey?” asks a skeptical Mayor Ed Koch about the neighborhood.) Again, the book is too Shubertcentric: we also don’t get that close a look at interlopers like the Walt Disney Company, whose seemingly daft 49-year lease of the decrepit New Amsterdam Theater was the key to the revival of 42nd Street.

In the analog era I might have noted that some of the location description might be a little off-putting to people who don’t know New York City that well: I might have complained that there was no theater-district map. But everybody can locate these places on their frickin phones by now, so all you really need for SECRET LIFE and RAZZLE DAZZLE is a love for the American musical, and/or a curiosity about how it’s served to you. One’s for the notes. The other’s for the C-notes. But you can’t have Broadway without both of them.


The Bloomberg Factor

January 28, 2016

bloombergpoint.banner.reuters.jpgThe new year’s most intriguing political development is the news that former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is quietly exploring the possibility of entering the Presidential race as an independent.

Bloomberg has always wanted to be President — along with Dick Cheney, he likes the idea of the office but hates the self-abasement required to get there — and you can’t blame him for considering a run just about now. To Bloomberg, who is difficult to pigeonhole on the rigid political spectrum of our day, the race for the Republican nomination is devolving into a mean-spirited circus, and two scary clowns are currently leading the pack. Should Bernie Sanders win the Democratic nomination, Bloomberg would probably despair over the prospect of even more intractable gridlock than we have now. In a worst-case scenario — say, Sanders against Donald Trump or Ted Cruz — Bloomberg would see more than an opportunity: from his point of view, it might be closer to a necessity. But he can’t wait for clarity: he has to push the button long before the two nominees are chosen. Plus, Michael Bloomberg doesn’t like to lose.

Serious third-party Presidential candidacies in my lifetime have all had unintended consequences. The two most notorious were Ross Perot in 1992 and Ralph Nader in 2000. Both men siphoned away votes from a major party’s natural constituency, thus helping to elect the opposition: Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. But who might benefit and who might suffer from a Bloomberg-led ticket? It’s far less evident.

On the one hand, he’s a fat-cat multibillionaire (he’s way richer than Trump, and he got that way without a seven-figure loan from his father; he could easily self-finance a national campaign) with “New York values,” meaning, I guess, moderate positions on gun control, immigration, abortion, climate change and the like. A perfect target for Citizen Cruz. Then again, he has used the power of government as mayor to ban smoking in shared public spaces, an idea which has caught on as far away as Dublin, and he was just starting to pose ways to reduce the consumption of sugary sodas when the clock ran out. Those pesky nanny-state regulations, which successful businesspeople are supposed to hate. Bloomberg was also a welcome voice of reason during the trumped-up kerfuffle over the “Ground Zero mosque.” A few people carped about his making New York especially better for the especially better off, but he’s generally remembered as an effective mayor: he made other moderates like himself fairly pleased with his ideas and his courage.

There are plenty of Democrats who would vote for Bloomberg in a general election, especially if their party chose Bernie Sanders. It’s not that they don’t like the Bern, they just recognize that the good ideas he’s campaigning on would be impossible to enact without the kind of compromises that would wind up displeasing the Senator. Yes, what’s missing is the art of the deal. The good thing for Bloomberg is that Sanders has pretty much nullified any latent anti-Semitism: its not going to be an issue. You have to be some kind of king-hell bigot in this day and age to object to a candidate just because he’s Jewish, and those few serious knuckle-draggers vote Republican anyway.

Bloomberg has said that if Hillary Clinton were nominated, he’d be less inclined to run, and I can see that. Outside of a sitting veep, she is the best-qualified Presidential candidate in memory. Her views dovetail with Blooomberg’s reality-based pragmatism more neatly. She seems to understand how the federal government really operates, and knows where to push and prod. And she makes those scary clowns froth at the mouth.

If he had a crystal ball, Bloomberg’s decision would be easy. He made his fortune by predicting the future, correctly sensing a potential lucrative symbiosis between the financial markets and emerging power and speed in data processing at a time when his learned bosses and colleagues at Salomon Brothers thought he was nuts. But now he can’t. If he wants in, he has to act by early March. That would still give him time to get his name on the ballot in all fifty states, and the very first thing an independent candidate needs, even beyond a vast pile of money, is a ballot with his name on it. He won’t have time to analyze his chances in all but a few early-primary states. The GOP nomination, maybe both, could still be up in the air when summer rolls around. But you can bet his people are carefully studying the likely scenarios, because Michael Bloomberg wouldn’t be running to make a statement. He’d be running to win.

Statewide and national politicians depend on sugar daddies more than ever before. We all know that a few immensely wealthy donors have outsized influence over modern campaigns. Not necessarily by flooding the tube with commercials — that gets less and less effective each presidential cycle (hi, Jeb!) — but one sole megadonor like the Kochs or Sheldon Adelson or Cruz’s Robert Mercer can keep a campaign afloat and the staffers paid even after popular support has dwindled: look how Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum hobbled into oblivion way past their sell-by dates last time. Now we have self-funding candidates, and lots of them. Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman were unable to parlay a wad into an office, but it’s not at all unusual to read that a newly elected governor was his own largest donor.

Trump’s big hook is that he’s so rich, no “special interest” can tell him what to do. Should he enter the race, Bloomberg could handily, er, trump this notion. But he has to jump in before anybody is nominated, and his independent candidacy could suck moderate votes from potential nominees Clinton, Sanders, Rubio, Jeb!, Kasich. When you share such votes, you just might give an advantage to the fiery id of the political zealot, and hello, President Cruz. And if you divide electoral votes three ways, you might not even get a clear winner at all — throwing the 2016 Presidential election to the ineffable wisdom of that distinguished body, the United States House of Representatives.


The Dynamic Duo In Gotham City

July 10, 2015

thAs Penn & Teller began their limited New York engagement last Tuesday night, it seemed like a valedictory performance, at least to those of us old enough to remember the mid-Eighties off-Broadway run at the Westside Arts that made them national stars. They are now the official longest-running headliners in the history of Las Vegas, which tells you how long it’s been since they’ve played Broadway. But New York still holds a special place in their hearts; you can tell.

th-1When they introduced themselves to the nation from the home base of that Westside engagement, they’d already been honing their act for a decade. They quickly became the hippest ticket in town (the eccentricity was a big draw; their Obie was inscribed “To Penn & Teller for Whatever It’s Called That They Do”) and favored guests on New York’s own Letterman show, which reached just their kind of crowd, all across the country. Back then, before the Internet took over everything, the technologically savvy P&T hosted MOFO, a computer bulletin board that allowed their fans to chat with the boys and each other. (It was named for “MOFO, the Psychic Gorilla,” the star of one of their few bits in which the normally silent Teller spoke, though surreptitiously.) Penn used to lead midnight jaunts through a grimier Times Square and descend with his small posse on an unsuspecting grindhouse for some kung fu or B-movie horror. They’ve always nurtured a personal attachment in their fans, greeting them outside the theater after each show. (Shake Penn’s hand or tell him you loved it, and he’ll probably say, “Thanks, boss.” See, everybody who pays to see him is his…)

th-1I had a strong feeling that this might be my last chance to see Penn & Teller on stage. Not that I sense anything ominous regarding their partnership or their appeal. It’s just that Vegas is so rippin far away. For years to come, I’m sure I can always buy a plane ticket and book a hotel room and schlep myself across the country to the Penn & Teller Theater at the Rio. But now, in a rare luxury, they were coming to me: all I had to do was hop a bus and take a short stroll. So I decided to make the most of P&T’s brief NYC residency by also attending their “TimesTalk” at the beautiful New York Times Center the Thursday before they began performing at the Marquis.

At the TimesTalk.

At the TimesTalk.

Before a fraction of the capacity of their Broadway venue, the boys chatted with moderator Erik Piepenburg, did a few tricks, and answered questions from the audience. You’ve heard Penn talk for years now, but Teller in particular is quite well-spoken and astute; he’s spent so much stage and air time in silence — which he views as a more intimate form of communication — that you occasionally find yourself disoriented as the “quiet guy” spews out deftly-considered sentences. They’re both wry and funny (Teller: the difference between the old street-busking days and Broadway is, “Here, you pass the hat first.”), yet dead serious about matters that demand it, including the performance of magic. I’ve probably watched Teller in Houdini’s “East Indian Needles” illusion ten times now, including at this TimesTalk and later at the Broadway show, and even though the method is widely known if you care to dig, it’s still exhilarating to see it nailed perfectly by a master; it’s exactly like watching a beloved song done live by the very singer you wanted to hear. They also presented their legendary take on “Cups & Balls,” an ancient sleight-of-hand routine, using transparent cups. At the end came one I hadn’t seen before: they convinced a blindfolded volunteer that solid rings were passing through her arms using an intricate, delicate series of moves requiring both performers. We, the audience, were watching the method, which was fooling only the blinded subject, and we were still amazed at the clever artistry that spun the illusion. Which was the whole point, after all. For us, it was a great intimate session with two wonderful raconteurs. For them, it was the dinner break from rehearsal.

th-2Five nights later, I was settling in for their first preview at the Marquis. As in Vegas, the Penn & Teller pre-show consists of a jaunty, merry jazz pianist (Mike Jones, “Jonesy,” who’s been with them forever) accompanied by a big guy in a fedora thumping away on an upright bass. They’ve been playing since the house opened. The bassist is Penn, he’s actually a pretty good one-man rhythm section, and he’ll keep picking that tub until about curtain minus :10. On stage, as is also common in their Vegas show, are some props that the arriving audience members are invited to come up and inspect and/or sign.

PENN & TELLER ON BROADWAY had been described by the stars in the TimesTalk as a summation of their career: not “our greatest hits,” but a meaningful selection. For example, “Needles” was the first trick Penn ever saw Teller perform. Historic. It’s in. The boys took command of the theater even before they were announced. Projected onto a big video screen, Penn instructed us to turn our cell phones ON. One lucky audience member was going to be selected for the first trick, and that person would be able to record it from an angle that would reveal the method. Once the mind-blowing bit was over, we all realized: the video inside that guy’s cell phone is the ONLY way you could figure out how that phone possibly got from one place to a jaw-dropping other place. A minicam figured into another hilarious piece as well. Never let it be said that Penn & Teller are old-fashioned.

No. Let it be frickin said. When they first appeared off-Broadway thirty years ago, Teller writes in the program notes, their producers advised them to avoid describing themselves as “magicians.” It, um, conjured the wrong image. So they remained coy about what they did (note the Obie citation). Only while exiting did their audiences realize they’d been persuaded to attend a magic show. Now, on their triumphant return, they’re embracing their inner magicians. Penn promises the audience that they will see nothing less than: (1) a rabbit pulled from a hat! (2) a lady sawed into halves! and (3) the vanishing of an elephant! “What more could you possibly want from a Broadway magic show?” he bellows. But in between, they take humorous but no less effective shots at hated enemies like “mentalists,” unthinking religious fervor (they don’t even like thinking religious fervor), and, science be praised, the imperious rat bastards of the T.S.A.

thMaybe I’m imagining it, but I think I noticed a nod to the duo’s advancing physical age. Don’t get me wrong, they both look great. Penn has lost more than 100 pounds after being diagnosed with high blood pressure and adopting a healthier lifestyle. Teller is as quick and agile as ever, but he’s a couple years older than I, and I have a Medicare card, d00d. What we didn’t see was one of those towering Grand Guignol bits that used to put Teller in jeopardy, whether suspended above spring-loaded bear traps or a row of pointed spikes, “drowned” in a water-escape cell, or madly pulling himself through tubes to appear as impossibly separated body parts. These are all illusions, sure, but they require physical effort too. I suspect that at some point the partners may have decided to pull back a scoche on the stuff that makes you pant. There’s a grisly moment played for laughs — their specialty — and Penn does “risk injury” in a piece with a nail gun, but that aspect of P&T has been refined. They still perform the amazing “Bullet Catch” in Vegas, but that’s as suspenseful as they get nowadays.

th-2No, my two favorite parts of this show were quieter ones. I think Teller has performed the piece they call “Shadows” every time I’ve seen them live, and each time it strikes me with a melancholy I can’t explain. (Same beloved-song analogy as above.) By the end of the illusion I want to cry. I almost did this time, because for me the trick’s innate sadness was stuffed together with, this may be the last time I ever see this. Sniffle. Then the lights went out and Penn began talking softly about carnival acts, the “ten-in-ones,” the freak shows. Then some fire lit him just a tad, and his monologue led us up slowly to a demonstration of fire eating. What he was saying seemed to come from deep inside. He never raised his voice. He said that after thirty years of coming out and greeting the audience after every show, they couldn’t help but eavesdrop on some remarkable comments. “Aw, Teller used candy needles.” (As if anybody would manufacture them.) “It was cold fire.” (WTF?) Everything else we’ve done tonight has been a trick, said Penn. This — meaning the small torch he was about to put into his mouth — is a stunt. They went through a routine that I once saw with a female assistant; tonight, the part was taken by Teller. Finally, in that same calm, earnest tone, Penn uttered the words that have opened and closed every live show I’ve ever seen: “I’m Penn Jillette, this is my partner Teller, we are Penn & Teller.” Now came a tear: the monologue and fire-eating was also how they’d ended their Westside Arts show, all those fun-filled years ago.

And just like that, poof! it was done.

th


Dave

May 18, 2015

thYou probably have to be a certain age to really appreciate the effect David Letterman has had on late-night comedy — no, on comedy period. And you have to be lots younger, intense and distractable now, to understand without much pondering why it is that he has to go.

You gotta know the rules to break ‘em, they say, and the rules were set by the former king of late-night, Letterman’s idol, Johnny Carson. A shy, guarded man off camera, Carson was most comfortable in two places: standing on his star-marker to deliver the nightly TONIGHT SHOW monologue, and behind the protective barrier of his desk, from which he would inquire and admire. The list of guests who sat on the couch to Johnny’s right for his thirty years on the air is matched only by those of Dave’s thirty-three. At first glance, the format remains: monologue, band, desk, guest. But the difference between the two men is what was in the background, behind them, out in the country at large.

Carson’s thirty-year reign began in 1962, when New York was still the center of the television industry; he didn’t move to California until ten years later. He came from that era of show business in which the audience still gave a damn about whatever Buddy Hackett and George Burns had for lunch at the Friars Club, and guys, women take so doggone long to get ready, am I right? Because there was so little “candid” repartee on the air, Johnny Carson’s brand of chitchat was trailblazing. He managed to maintain his stance as a wide-eyed Nebraska boy (the surrogate for his audience) even when he’d already become a bigger star than most of his guests. And think about that ten-year period in America, beginning with a healthy JFK and ending with Nixon’s creepy henchmen: almost alone among showbizzers, Johnny remained vital and relevant through it all.

thHollywood seemed to suit Carson. Everything was in color now, and he continued to dress in the height of fashion, even as it changed around him. Those ties with knots as big as your fist don’t look all that silly on old video of Johnny, like the Nehru jackets do on Sammy Davis Jr. (Can you imagine a David Letterman men’s apparel line? Carson had one.) In the early Seventies I managed a small group of writers at my graduate-school job, and one of them was a rabid fan of THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON (that was the official name of the program in NBC press materials; I knew that from my college-era stint on the local Sunday newspaper). This was the first time I’d encountered somebody younger than I whose day was not complete until he’d watched Johnny, who missed the show when it went on hiatus, who could quote every Art Fern or Aunt Blabby sketch by heart. In his adulation for the Rat-Pack school of show business, this man seemed caught out of his time, like, say, Leon Redbone. But to him, the coolest guy on tv, far and away, was Johnny Carson.

The studio system had imploded and the kids were taking over film sets and recording studios. They were reacting — if not quite rebelling — against however the powers that be used to do things, no matter what that was. During Johnny’s second decade a group of young comedians caught up in that same artistic wave began to question the nature of comedy itself. While National Lampoon magazine extended sophomoric humor to the mainstream by allowing college weisenheimers to continue placing whoopee cushions well after graduation, standups openly wondered why they were still using the Borscht Belt as a template. The most obvious was George Carlin, who decided to ditch the suit and tie, grow his hair long, and employ his genius for wordplay as candidly as he could. He became a funny, raunchy hippie, embodying the “Al Sleet, the Hippy-Dippy Weatherman” character he had once jeered on the Ed Sullivan show. This same ironic distance was emerging in every aspect of the performing arts, and in television it manifested itself in SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, SCTV and wee-hour rock-concert shows. All these outliers were programmed late, late, for that was presumably when bleary-eyed hipsters were stumbling back to the apartment or the dorm.

250px-LatenightdllogoJohnny’s third decade began in 1982, the same year NBC opened up a new comedy slot immediately following his broadcast, to be mounted by his own Carson Productions. They didn’t have to look far for a host. One of those young pranksters was a TONIGHT SHOW favorite and Johnny’s personal choice for heir apparent. This was LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN, and its guiding principle was, we’re on after most of Johnny’s fans have already turned in, so we’ll have some fun with the format and deconstruct it for those night owls who are still up.

Although there was still a monologue, desk and band (the brilliant Paul Shaffer has kept Letterman musically vital all this time but still favors the classic rock that Dave’s original fans grew up on), the best parts of LATE NIGHT ventured out from Johnny’s safety zone, way farther than the few steps of the “Mighty Carson Art Players.” Letterman’s “field pieces” from that era (for example, taking over a Taco Bell drive-through station and messing with the unwitting customers) are still funny today: in fact, they’re being revived one by one on the last few shows. They’ve always played a classic remote piece or two to rev up Dave’s live studio audience as part of the warmup routine. There’s only one man who can do a field piece as well as Letterman, and that’s Conan O’Brien — but, of course, Conan went to school watching Dave, as did today’s DAILY SHOW correspondents, who march down the same well-whacked jungle lanes.

You could sum up LATE NIGHT with one simple fact. It was self-aware: it knew it was a tv talk show. Writer/performer Chris Elliott might pop up from a trap door as “The Guy Under The Seats,” later plop into the guest chair as an unctuous celebrity, skewering the very type of shameless promotion that had just aired on Carson. They might strap a minicam onto a monkey’s back and let the beast run loose, for no good reason at all. Then there were irresistible stunts, like Dave testing suits made of Alka-Seltzer or Velcro, or dropping stuff off a five-story tower to watch it burst. Don’t forget the legendary Stupid Pet Tricks and their offshoot, Stupid Human Tricks. It was as if the hell-raisingest class clown somehow glommed the keys to a tv studio and figured out how to turn everything on. The churlish NBC insisted all this was their “intellectual property” when Letterman was passed over as TONIGHT SHOW host on Johnny’s retirement, so the show had to start over when it decamped to CBS.

220px-The_Late_ShowThe NBC show kind of had the writers trapped in their offices at 30 Rock; they had to leave midtown for most of the field pieces, though they did find themselves playing around with a Simon & Schuster publicist whose office at 1230 Avenue of the Americas happened to be right across from theirs. (Because of this serendipitous relationship, S&S wound up publishing very popular collections of the writers’ Top Ten Lists.) Once CBS served them up an entire building, the old Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway, the rechristened LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN was able to stretch out. Now they dropped stuff from their own place onto 53rd Street, where they also rode horses, shot guys out of a cannon, held batting practice, etc. And they made friends with their new neighbors in what in 1993 was a rather run-down neighborhood (it’s not any more). Soon souvenir salesmen Mujibur and Sirajul and deli owner Rupert Gee were semi-regulars on the show, and charmingly bizarre field pieces could happen right next door (such as cramming dozens of people all wearing Spider-Man costumes into the local Jamba Juice).

Letterman himself had always been viewed as aloof and cranky when off camera, self-critical to a fault (journalist Bill Carter reported that Letterman scribbled the note “I hate myself” and showed it to Teri Garr during a commercial break). Opinions differ among those who know him well. But then two earthshaking events changed everything. In January 2000, he underwent emergency quintuple bypass heart surgery, which saved his life. And in November 2003, he and longtime partner Regina Lasko welcomed a son, Harry. Even casual fans can tell that Letterman has mellowed, softened, grown into a new kind of responsibility that has nothing to do with comedy. Parenthood may be a prime reason Dave decided to step down when he did.

We’ve been in the Letterman audience several times over the years, starting with the old NBC show in 1990. The guests that night at 30 Rock were Rush Limbaugh — a conservative curiosity stepping into the lions’ den six years before Fox News went on the air — and a young starlet named Sharon Stone, who was in a new movie, TOTAL RECALL. “Tell us a little about yourself.” “Well, I was born in Meadville, Pennsylvania…” etc., then a few moments later Letterman fished out a copy of the current issue of PLAYBOY with a, um, healthy pictorial. “What do they think of this back in Meadville?” A CBS taping years later featured Howard Stern, who came on already livid because Dave had been giving too much airtime to his then-rival, Don Imus. Stern was blowing a gasket, actually turning red, not letting Letterman get a word in edgewise. Cut to commercial. Stern immediately deflated, the two guys talked and grinned. It was an act, all of it. As the countdown back to air happened, Stern puffed himself up and made it look like he’d been yelling all the way through the break. You know the talk-show world is artifice in your brain, but now you get to see it with your eyes. Of course, the overpreparation makes it even juicier when the host does lose control unexpectedly, such as Drew Barrymore’s spontaneous upstage flashing, or the infamous interview with Joaquin Phoenix who was “in character” as a sullen rapper without Letterman’s knowledge. (Phoenix came back later to apologize.)

th-1I’ve always been amazed at the attention to detail in Shaffer’s musical direction: each piece of walk-in music has something to do with the guest. For example, George Clooney was on last Thursday night, and his newest project is a movie called TOMORROWLAND. So Shaffer and the “CBS Orchestra” struck up Jimi Hendrix’s “Wait Till Tomorrow.” This same thing happens every night, every time. (A couple nights ago, Shaffer buttoned a Top Ten list having to do with Thomas A. Edison with a familiar guitar solo. After the break, Dave said from the desk, “Todd Rundgren.” Paul replied, “I Saw The Light.” Dave said, “Perfect!” It’s gone that way for 33 years.) Then one night when I was in the audience Chuck Leavell, that keyboard master, happened to be in town with the Rolling Stones. So Shaffer asked him to come sit in with the “CBS Orchestra.” They did pick a couple Stones tunes, and I think an Allmans piece, but what impressed me was that Chuck held his own with these grizzled sight-readers — probably the most versatile house band on television — on anything they wanted to play.

A self-aware, self-deprecating, anything-goes tv show. (The host once described LATE NIGHT as “a comedy show disguised as a talk show,” but lately there have been a helluva lot of things for guests to plug; it can be wearying.) The ultra-ironic is not so unusual any more, because David Letterman’s DNA has been absorbed into the culture. A pure talk show like Carson’s is anachronistic these days; now you shoot for YouTube clips, something which Letterman admits he has trouble wrapping his mind around. The game has changed once again, as a new generational shift takes hold. The day after tomorrow, when Dave finishes his final show, the senior late-night host in time on the air will be Jimmy Kimmel — at 47 he’ll be the oldest too, but Stephen Colbert, 50, will edge him out when his show replaces Dave’s in September.

Nobody better deserves a happy retirement than David Letterman. I’d say it’ll be fun seeing him in interesting places, but Johnny virtually vanished after he left THE TONIGHT SHOW and enjoyed the rest of his life largely in private. There are many similarities between the two men, and holding their lives close to the vest is one of them. Frankly, I just wish one thing for Dave above all else. I want him to get to a place where he never feels like scribbling such an anguished note, ever again.


Synchin’ ‘n’ The Reign

January 13, 2015
John Epperson at work.

John Epperson at work.

We went downtown to see the final performance of THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD, a show that we just couldn’t miss for two reasons. One, I met the co-star, Steve Cuiffo, last summer at Ricky Jay’s magic immersion weekend. Steve mentioned this piece from the stage and I made the mental note to see it next chance I got, because he then called out the second reason by name-checking the star, an old friend of mine from Mississippi theater days, John Epperson. John’s better known now by another name, as audience after audience screams with laughter and delight at the antics of his alter ego: the fabulous Lypsinka.

Calling Lypsinka a drag act is like calling Segovia a guitar player: it’s technically correct, but man, are you missing the point. What Lypsinka brings onstage tests the limits of a theatrical tradition and then explodes them. John Epperson isn’t just the best at what he does, he has no serious competition. That’s how five, six, ten years can pass between New York Lypsinka shows and her many fans, both gay and straight, will still be clamoring for tickets. Lypsinka rules, like the grande dame she is.

Drag itself is a venerable art form, and not only in gay-oriented places. For many years, “female impersonators” like Jim Bailey have been perfectly welcome in mainstream venues, including big Vegas rooms, the Sunday-night Ed Sullivan Show, even Carnegie Hall. I remember watching Bailey impersonate Garland, Streisand, or Phyllis Diller on Sullivan from my home in Jackson, Mississippi. About thirty miles away in a town called Hazlehurst, perhaps tuned to the same tv station, John Epperson was doing his best to cope.

John Epperson in mufti.

John Epperson in mufti.

John is years younger than I — discretion forbids the exact figure — and for his higher education he moved to Jackson and Belhaven College. I’d long since graduated from Millsaps College, two or three miles away. For years afterward, I used to tell people I had a “conservative-arts” education, bada-boom, but I kid Millsaps College. To a Mississippi just barely emerging from its Klan-ruled era, Millsaps (Methodist) looked, and felt, like Berkeley. Today it features MBAs and its own Phi Beta Kappa chapter. John’s Belhaven (Presbyterian), on the other hand, was the real deal: mandatory chapel, all of that. Not exactly the prime breeding spot for future underground musical comedy stars.

Because of the age difference, I didn’t meet John until after college, when I returned from Georgia and both of us hung around a troupe of local players at Jackson’s New Stage Theatre. I well remember a solo show John put up in the Hewes Room, a small performance space at the Jackson Little Theater. Just him and a piano. It must have been an early stab at what eventually became JOHN EPPERSON: SHOW TRASH (1), the makeup-free portion of LYPSINKA! THE TRILOGY, in which three of his already-established shows recently ran “in rep” for two months in New York. The other day, we saw THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD (2), to which I’ll return in a moment. The third piece was a full-blown Lypsinka show called LYPSINKA! THE BOXED SET (3). My favorite of such amazements is a long-ago production called I COULD GO ON LIP-SYNCHING! This is the uncut stuff that has made Lypsinka (like Cher, she’s fabulous enough to need only one name, but she is actually a scion of the Von Rasputinas) literally world-famous.

Every Lypsinka show requires its creator to produce not just one single miracle, but three of them. The first miraculous step is the prerecorded audio track. John assembles this personally, with an engineer (here, Alex Noyes). A typical Lypsinka piece employs hundreds of cues from radio, movies, tv, records, interviews, anything, all mashed into a bizarre lickety-split throughline that makes sense only in the performance. It’s far beyond simply lip-synching songs; a Lypsinka track is composed of tightly-cued bits of speech that play like music. About half of the CRAWFORD show reproduces the notorious interview conducted at New York’s Town Hall by public relations man John Springer on April 8, 1973, only weeks after Marlon Brando had sent a faux Indian to the stage to decline his Oscar for THE GODFATHER. While generational change is all around her, La Crawford is still living in the Forties, the obsequious audience applauds every mention of any past screen luminary, and this mindless adoration gets ever funnier as it continues. Then we have some shorter audio pieces, such as Miss Crawford reading the cloying but briefly trendy “Desiderata” on a tv appearance. Finally we descend into a major fantasia, with pantomimed telephones alternately ringing into her left and right ears to introduce lurid Crawford snippets wrenched out of potboilers ranging from classics to STRAIGHT JACKET to TROG. This last surreal section is a full-throttle Lypsinka sound assembly, so artfully devised that it might kill all by itself just coming out of an iPod. But then you wouldn’t know where to look.

The second miracle is memorization. I would love to be a fly on the wall at rehearsals for a new Lypsinka piece, especially this one, which uniquely requires TWO lip-synching actors. Last summer at the Ricky Jay weekend, Steve Cuiffo — who plays Springer, every other interrogator, and even that classic announcer Dick Tufeld Speaking — discussed this show in that very sense. He described how lip-synching demands a radically different form of preparation than for a more traditional role. Here, timing is everything and the cues are instinctive. I imagine they must sound something like music, but without the reassurance of countable rhythm. Anybody can learn a play’s worth of dialogue, trust me. But there has to be a certain natural awareness by which John and Steve can memorize the pauses too. For many years John’s day job was as rehearsal pianist for American Ballet Theatre; you can see him in this capacity in a crucial scene in Darren Aronofsky’s film BLACK SWAN. Imagine the innate timekeeping ability required to support a classical dancer’s precision; he has to be more on-the-nose than most drummers. Maybe that’s how he’s managed to limber up that split-second timing. Steve was responsible for queries and pauses for perhaps two-thirds of one show. John performed all thirds of that same show, plus a full-length solo piece requiring the same unflagging concentration, not to mention SHOW TRASH as himself, and all of it in random order as the two-month “rep” engagement continued. No more complaining from any other actors struggling to get off book!

Steve Cuiffo (l.) and Lypsinka performing THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD.

Steve Cuiffo (l.) and Lypsinka performing THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD.

The miraculous trinity is completed in the visual performance. With classic-era diva makeup slathered on, Lypsinka is able to amplify the recorded track with movements so minute and dead-on that it’s possible to occasionally forget she isn’t actually speaking. For CRAWFORD, I was sitting in the stage-right front row, no more than ten feet from the two performers, and I noticed only five, maybe six slight “sync” errors during the entire hour-plus piece. (Those came at points where there was really no way to anticipate the cue, and each time the actors recovered instantly.) That’s all the imperfection I could see, and I was right on top of them! Lypsinka’s addenda are her eyes, lips, coiffure, diva-esque turns, and occasional drop-dead gazes at her interlocutor. Clothes hang nicely on John’s model-thin frame; Lypsinka is born to fashion (and has actually graced some famous runways), not some dragette stuffing himself into a costume. Sitting very close for the first time at a Lypsinka performance, I expected the show to be aimed beyond me, like some Broadway actors will do (Jason Robards Jr., for example, was an inveterate spitter, and some of his downstage histrionics could actually reach the front row). But I noticed some very subtle things between the two actors which might not even have projected. Or maybe I’m wrong about that: the reason you wear makeup on stage in the first place is so the folks in the back row can see your features plainly. Lypsinka’s makeup looks good up close in a maturing-diva sense (in other words, this Crawford’s no longer young enough to try to appear natural), but you can see every overly dramatic lip-tremble from the back row too. You can probably see it from the frickin International Space Station.

After the show, John came out for a very rare curtain talk: I’d never before seen him appear on stage out of character. It was the last night of the run, the final CRAWFORD, and in two hours he would end the entire engagement with a late-show performance of SHOW TRASH. As he thanked us, the soft-spoken Hazlehurst accent appeared, unamplified, and he seemed to lose an inch or two in height, in clear contrast to the over-the-top boisterous razzle-dazzle he’d just presented. Then a sly grin. “If we decided to do this again, maybe in a year or so, would you tell your friends…and come back?” Of course, the place went nuts. What a wonderful body of performance art this talented actor has created. Whenever you’re ready, just say (or sync) the word, man, and you can count on me.

P.S. It’ll take a little longer, because a year from now John is already booked, as we learned in the New York Times.

6/2/15: Jim Bailey, referenced above, left us this year.


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