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.

Jim Dollarhide, 1952-2016

March 18, 2016

UnknownJim Dollarhide apparently died on Wednesday in a fire at his lakefront home in Madison, Mississippi. I say “apparently” because they found a body in the still-burning rubble of his 3800-foot house and Jim is missing, but it will require some dental examination to make sure. The firefighters said the “structure was fully involved” by the time they got there at 10:41 p.m. after an emergency call from a neighbor, and the upper levels had already collapsed. It’s almost certain Jim is gone. If I have to retract this piece, I will do so with great joy.

I’ve known Jim since my advertising days in the Seventies. He was the first filmmaker I got to spend quality time with. I like movies and all, and I even took some production courses in graduate school so I have some idea what it feels like to create a film, but this was the first guy I ever met who had already decided to make a living at it. To Jim, a beautiful image might be all well and good, but it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing: it has to move.

You meet lots of gifted photographers in the ad game, but they produce a different kind of art. The still shooter shows you an instant in time. The filmmaker shows you the passage of time. Jim had the eye for nifty composition which any good fotog possesses, but it was that third dimension, the depiction of duration, that fascinated and obsessed him.

Jim was a blue-collar filmmaker. By that I mean he was no rarefied sissy on location; he could get down and dirty in physical labor with his crew, made up of people he liked and respected. But he demanded professionalism and courtesy. Once my ad agency hired Jim to do some films and tv spots for Yazoo Mowers, those big-wheeled monsters built like tanks. I was the agency producer, meaning all I had to do was stand around and nod, and guzzle the occasional soft drink. But even with my light load of responsibility, it was the most horrible shoot I’ve ever been on. For two weeks it was steaming even by Mississippi standards (the grips showed me how to dip a neck scarf in Sea Breeze astringent and ice water to cool down the circulation), we were in a severe drought so most grass was brown and we had to figure out how to color it (the mayor had even forbidden people from watering their lawns), and too many of the setups were on undulating spreads that required time-consuming engineering to lay dolly track for smooth camera motion. But we made it through somehow, and celebrated with a wrap party at Jim’s house. I decided to buy each of the crew members a really nice knife to say thanks for going above and beyond. I guess I’d gone there too: one of them said, “This is the first time a producer ever gave me anything.” Jim was walking by, and over his shoulder came, “He gave you a job.”

Me, trying to look productive on that godforsaken Yazoo shoot. Jim is peeking out from my left armpit.

Me, trying to look productive on that godforsaken Yazoo shoot. Jim is peeking out from my left armpit.

Jim’s page on IMDb notes that he “founded a production company called ‘Imageworks’ two decades before Sony Pictures used the term.” I know it does because I’m the one who put it there. We were both running teensy little outfits in the Eighties and we had a symbiotic relationship. He was doing fewer commercials, which are tightly scripted beforehand, and more industrial films and longer documentaries, where he could call in a writer at the pre-production stage. The difference in our two companies was that Imageworks was hugely capital-intensive: Jim had to keep up with emerging technologies, so he needed new equipment all the time. He originally had one of those honking Steenbeck flat-bed editing decks, where to make an edit you physically snipped the film and spliced it back with tape, which is how movies had been cut since time immemorial. In those days some bigger houses were using a process called “negative to tape” for their first baby steps into online editing, but Jim had to separate wants from needs in order to survive in the more frugal environment of central Mississippi. Now the Steenbeck is as quaint a relic as the X-Acto knife, but Jim had long since moved on. It’s a shame that he largely missed out on the digital revolution of the past few years — shooting on location is cheaper and nimbler than it’s ever been before.

Jim not only loved his craft, he also loved his native state of Mississippi, but not in a Confederate way. He was a huge music fan and cherished the rich tradition of Mississippi Delta blues. He shot thousands of feet of B. B. King and became a good friend; Jim’s documentary plays every day at the B. B. King Museum in Indianola. After all the years slogging and working together for industry and commerce, I guess my favorite film of Jim’s is the scriptless HARMONIES: A MISSISSIPPI OVERTURE (1994), a labor of love and a piece of pure cinema that tells you everything you need to know about him in just 25 minutes. He was a kind, upstanding, talented man whose generosity of spirit mentored so many young men and women; their praises and tears are pouring in equally today. Goodbye, Jim. You were one of a kind, and you are already missed.

How Do You Solve A Problem Like The Donald?

March 11, 2016

UnknownScientists detected gravitational waves as black holes collided a billion light years away, verifying the final prediction in Einstein’s general theory of relativity, but all anybody could talk about was Donald J. Trump. So let’s add to the cacophony!

After 2012’s bizarre Presidential primary season (I guess it’ll become known as Clown Car 1.0), Republican poobahs futzed with the schedule to make it easier to winnow the field in favor of a strong early candidacy. Individual billionaire sugar daddies, unfettered by contribution limits, were allowing asterisks like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich to last far beyond their sell-by dates instead of dutifully joining the Tribal Council alongside Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain. This was confusing the faithful, who are accustomed to receiving decisions from on high. Ever since Ronald Reagan challenged and nearly toppled Gerald Ford in 1976, which some felt softened Ford up for the Jimmy Carter insurgency, Pub candidates have tended to take their rightful turns in the captain’s seat after some pro forma sliming (see Carolina, South) to tone up for the general.

That was the plan, and it’s working like a charm. One problem, though. That strong early candidacy? This year, it’s not the candidate the big shots wanted. And they don’t know how to react.

Donald Trump doesn’t need to kowtow to wealthy enablers, but it’s not because he’s rich. (Compared to the Pub donor elite, he’s not that rich at all.) It’s because he’s a tv star famous for brute bellicosity, a bad-guy wrestler in a ring full of dog-whistling sissies. His tv persona makes decisions. He gets things done. He sucks the air out of a room and pulls all camera lenses toward true north. Never mind that most of his pronouncements defy any empirical sense: they cut to the heart of what impolite society actually feels in its gut of guts, and ratings go up whenever he yaps. Moochers, peaceniks, pointy-heads and tree-huggers have taken our country away from us (i.e., white males). Let’s reclaim it. Let’s bomb ISIS back to the Stone Age, kick Muslims out of the country, build a Great Wall of New Mexico. I pity the fool who messes with me, even if it’s the Pope. We’re as mad as hell, and we’re not gonna take this any more! Donald Trump doesn’t need a can full of expensive tv spots. According to the Tyndall Report, he gets nearly ten times the amount of network news coverage, also known as “free media,” as does his closest rival, Ted Cruz. This isn’t what the Koch brothers had in mind at all, especially since they might be forced to turn on the cash spigot that had Hillary’s name on it even before the Pub primaries are over.

What the heck do people see in Trump? For one thing, somebody who is finally calling bullshit, some of it well deserved.

Fifty years after the 1965 Voting Rights Act (recently emasculated by the Supremes 5-4), LBJ’s rueful prediction has long since come true, and the South has been delivered to the Republican Party. Whenever you hear “the party of Lincoln” and “Democrats supported the KKK,” understand that for most of the 20th century, it was the Democratic Party that was the stronghold of segregation and repression, thanks to its intransigent Southern wing. It’s all there in MASTER OF THE SENATE, Robert Caro’s magnificent chronicle of the era. But the winds changed after the party’s “betrayal” of Dixie, Richard Nixon gave his own clumsily euphemistic shove in 1968, Reagan furthered things along for the ruling class, and now the solid South is solid Pubs, complete with the attendant racism and xenophobia. Yes, I know most Pubs aren’t racists. But most racists are Pubs.

Now, for half a century this smoldering anti-Other resentment has been poked by the Pub party line. Rich people are actually good for the economy because they’re job creators; reduce their taxes and they’ll create even more. Lazy welfare bums play us for suckers. Democrats steal elections through massive voter fraud. Government is utterly incompetent (except for the military and the secret jackboots aching to confiscate your guns or invade Texas) and should butt out of our lives (except for the bedroom and the immigration office). Foreign policy should be built on fear, not respect. Universal health care is a job-killing, inflation-provoking catastrophe. And so on. At the extremes it’s even stranger. Climate change is a hoax perpetrated by scientists in order to get fat research grants. The earth is 6000 years old because the Bible says so, according to newly politicized evangelicals. Science itself is suspect because it’s all just theories anyway. The President (did you realize he’s black?) is a foreign-born Muslim, and he’s either “feckless” (a word the right has recently discovered) or an all-powerful imperial dictator. He’s even been called a “socialist Nazi,” a mutually exclusive term that nevertheless sounds wonderful if you happen to hate the POTUS.

Such propaganda has worked fine all this time, especially on the state and local level, about which too few voters care and at which there isn’t much informed opposition. It’s downright easy to pull this stuff off in times of prosperity, when things are managing to get better or people are at least treading water. America is an aspirational society, the land of opportunity, each citizen unencumbered by his class at birth. A humble thus-and-so can grow up to be a captain of industry, or even — dare he think it? — president of the United States. We let wealthy people off easy because in our dreams we too might be wealthy some day, either by dint of honest labor or a stroke of lottery luck. When we get rich, we want all those juicy tax breaks for ourselves so we can conserve what we have and battle those who threaten any portion of it, just as the big shots do today.

But recent times have not been prosperous for the American working class, despite what it says in the latest jobs report or the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Real wages are flat and have been for decades. Whatever leverage collective bargaining once provided has slowly dissipated into insignificance. Technology and lower-wage foreign workers are removing jobs from the economy which will never return. What’s different this time is that some people are beginning to look past the Other-directed fear and anger to perceive a new villain: the political long con that leaves them behind.

Election after election, guys in shirt sleeves and cowboy boots step up to the mike and promise to look out for the “hard-working American people.” But, once in office, time and again they join the plutocracy that keeps things humming along for the few American people at the top. One of the most beautiful whoppers is “trickle-down” economics, which holds that tax cuts for the richest people are stimulative because they provide more capital to build factories and hire workers. In fact, nothing trickles down: when the wealthy get a windfall, they save or invest it rather than buying goods or services. A tax cut for the middle class and lower would be injected straight into the economy in the form of spending; let’s call it “bubble-up” economics. Not only have “austerity” programs damaged research and education across the country, they also cause us to ignore the crumbling infrastructure whose urgent repair would instantly create thousands of badly needed jobs. Sometimes you just have to borrow money, as anyone who owns a house or car will attest, but the false equivalency of “my family balances its budget, the government should too” seems to squelch any long view.

So the working class is going nowhere while the wealthy continue to take the lion’s share of gains in productivity. And one day Joe Sixpack looks up and realizes the only thing he’s netted in the past two decades is affordable health care, and that came from a Kenyan Marxist! Jeez, the rich power brokers are part of the problem! Joe can get madder, which is why Trump has been so successful blaming our ills on outsiders, or more terrified: have you ever heard louder national shrieking than during the 2014 Ebola scare? Compare and contrast with shrugs over the latest mass slaughter (unless a foreigner was responsible).

This realization, while overdue, is widespread. That’s how you get the Bernie Sanders insurrection as well. “Income inequality” isn’t a partisan term, at least not this year. The feeling that one’s country is slipping away, formerly the key to manipulating older white guys, is beginning to be joined for different reasons even by educated younger people, the less fortunate of them awash in college debt and resentful about it. Thus they feel the Bern. But whether it’s calculated or an accident, Trump’s bluster has come along at just the right moment. This was Ted Cruz’s scenario: a pox on all their houses! But he didn’t count on somebody who could outshout him. Neither did Jeb!, Rubio, Christie (this was really supposed to be his role), Jindal, Walker, Perry — the growing list of The Fallen continues to grace the ceiling of Stephen Colbert’s sanctuary. If the Pubs are counting on a brokered convention, I can’t wait to see the torches and pitchforks that come out when they deny Trump from a smoke-filled room.

I don’t see how Trump can possibly win the general: there aren’t enough angry old white guys. But I couldn’t see how he could get anywhere near the Republican nomination either, and now he’s a whisker away. You know it’s true because you’re starting to hear Pub apologists say, hey, maybe he can bring our down-ballot guys a bunch of first-time voters! Low turnout historically favors Pubs, which is why they suppress voting with all their might and pray for apathy. (If too many Democrats boycott Hillary or just stay home, as is their wont, there’ll be only one candidate remaining.) But maybe this year is different. Maybe the Pubs need turnout. After all, if Hillary wins and the Senate flips, Mitch McConnell loses his gamble and she could install Abbie frickin Hoffman on the Supreme Court. That’s a base-energizin’ thought.

My guess is that Trump entered the race as a brand-building lark and is as surprised as anyone else that he’s gotten this far. But presidential races can mess with ya. Now, Trump thinks he can actually win. So does Bernie Sanders. Meanwhile, I direct Cruz-fearing Pub mavens to the holy schadenfreude of Hosea 8:7: “For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.” Don’t act like you didn’t see this coming. Even if you didn’t wake up until it was almost too late, this is still on you.

Breaking Kayfabe

February 1, 2016

28beal“Kayfabe” is the fourth wall in professional wrestling. It’s a code, a principle, the relationship of the pros to the audience. The “feuds,” the “unmaskings,” the “leave-town matches,” are portrayed as absolutely genuine. A magician must never reveal her method; neither must a wrestler give fans any indication that the matches are indeed scripted and staged. Two “feuding” wrestlers who are friends in real life must never be seen fraternizing outside the ring: they are damaging the fiction, ruining the con. They are “breaking kayfabe.”

Before the World Wrestling Federation was forced to admit in 1989 that it produced scripted entertainment — to avoid being regulated like a genuine sport — kayfabe was dead serious and almost inviolable, like the dark secrets of grizzled carnies. The scam was so good that the rubes bought it. So good that when I lived in Georgia in the early Seventies, I remember hearing the sports reporter read the evening’s wrestling results on late-night network-affiliate news broadcasts. It wasn’t that the sportscaster believed. But his viewers did. Some of them still do.

Kayfabe divides wrestlers into two types: “heels,” or bombastic, thundering bad guys who will goad, cheat and lie; and “faces,” short for “babyfaces,” or virtuous, humble souls who compete on athletic ability alone. A heel can change into a face, and vice versa, in a storyline called a “turn.” Many if not most serious fan-favorite topliners since WWF promoter Vince McMahon admitted kayfabe in testimony before the New Jersey state senate were once heels. A well-executed turn can make even wide-eyed kids love the guy they were booing just two weeks ago.

The Economist, which is wonderfully droll on U.S. news due to its cultural remove, has looked on the current Presidential race with amusement and amazement. It describes one candidate as having “built an outrageous public persona around his gargantuan ego…Uncertainty over whether this is self-parody or undiluted egomania is part of the act. [He] is to public service what professional wrestling, which he loves, is to sport: entertaining and ludicrously implausible, a suspension of disbelief for escapists, a crude deception for the gullible.”

You know who the paper is talking about. Of course you do. But what if wrestling isn’t an analogy at all? What if Donald Trump’s candidacy so far has been nothing more than kayfabe?

Trump has been a classic heel ever since he announced for president. The Economist isn’t the first publication to note that his campaign appearances resemble pre-bout interviews with a bad-guy wrestler. His ego knows no bounds. He bellows about how he’s the best, smartest, winningest, and his opponents are weaklings, boring, losers. He rails about immigrants and Muslims, he out-jingos Ted Cruz, he makes meanspirited fun of his opponents. He sucks up media air like a bad guy who knows people don’t go to the matches to find out what his face opponent will do. They show up to see the heel.

I got to thinking about this after an appearance by Keith Olbermann last year on REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER. The two men were discussing Trump and Olbermann said when they met, Trump couldn’t have been nicer, kinder, or more considerate. It was all about your needs, he said: are you comfortable, can I get you anything? I was shocked when Maher seconded this appraisal. He had met Trump too, he said, and in the one-on-one setting, Maher had had the same reaction. I know what you’re thinking, and Olbermann said it out loud: either the blustery campaign persona or the respectful gentility is an act. But which one is it?

Could Trump be playing a heel to get attention and votes, beginning today in Iowa? (Remember, that’s what the crowds like.) Does he break kayfabe in private? Could he be planning a turn once he nails the nomination, and if so, could that storyline play to anyone beyond the gullible? Trump in the general: all of a sudden he’s a face? I hope I don’t have to buy a ticket.

2/3/16: A day or two later, somebody more verbally agile than I went here too.

6/7/16: And, incredibly, Trump IS the Pub nominee in the general. Unless the star chambers manage to do something about it before their quadrennial convention.

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.

Eudora Welty, 1909-2001 (Late)

January 17, 2016

eudora-welty-205x302I wrote this the week Eudora Welty passed away and just found it again after all these years. It’s for her friends and admirers.

Eudora Welty died at the age of 92, in Jackson, Mississippi, the town where she lived most of her life. Until her health became frail a few years prior, she had been a fixture of daily life in her quiet, wooded neighborhood, but not in the way William Faulkner once prowled the streets of Oxford, where the bemused locals referred to him behind his back as “Count No-Count.” Miss Welty—for that is how everyone addressed her until they were sweetly admonished to use her first name instead—was a genteel, beloved, active member of the community. She could be seen pushing her grocery cart through the aisles of Jitney Jungle #14, inside its absurd and incongruous “English Village” façade, straining to reach a can on the top shelf but always bearing her beatific smile. She was a regular at Fannie Mae’s hair salon, where gab was as important as styling. One might easily pass her walking on the street in the sultry summer twilight. Never did anyone stop, point, whisper that they were in the presence of one of the towering figures in American letters.

That’s because Miss Welty did not tower. Her work did that for her.

She possessed two talents that many writers of prose tend to overlook, and about which most hotshot screenwriters, judging from their output, can only dream: Eudora Welty had exceptional eyes and ears. Her authorial might derives from a gloriously detailed visual atmosphere, and from her uncanny ability to replicate, and then enhance, the quirky Southern idiom she heard every day and had stored in memory from her girlhood. She enjoyed watching others exercise those talents, too, and was an ardent theatergoer in a time when Jackson sported more than one credible company. She served on the board of directors of New Stage Theatre, the pioneering group that had opened its doors in the mid-Sixties with a raging production of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? at a point when the community was more accustomed to the likes of SOUTH PACIFIC, and she saw nearly every show there. That’s how I got to know her, and that’s when she became “Eudora” to me.

At cast parties in the ornate residences of Southern ladies who lunched, in the rarefied social strata unlocked by her accomplishments, she would come up to the smitten amateur actors and bestow the kindest praise. She didn’t like everything she saw and she told you so, but her scorn was usually reserved for the playwright. I always wanted to say, compared to what you do, we’re five-year-olds putting on a show with flashlights in Daddy’s living room. I even suspected that her enjoyment might be something like what Daddy feels for his lisping children. But that’s not how one accepts a compliment gracefully, and Eudora was the living embodiment of grace.

Once Ivan Rider, then New Stage’s artistic director, invited me to dinner with Eudora, just the three of us. Wow! I looked forward to the event eagerly but nervously. What could I possibly say to amuse her? After a cocktail or two—and she was never shy about cocktail hour—I realized she was using a conversational gambit that comes in handy any time: we were talking about me. But whereas most of us coax someone onto the subject of themselves just to break the ice, Eudora was simply feeding the natural curiosity that made her an unique cross between an artist and a journalist. Ivan had conspired to serve barbecued shrimp, a New Orleans delicacy. To partake, you throw some old newspapers on the table, dump out the shrimp, put on bibs and any other protection you might have, and peel your way through the spicy, delicious mess. Eudora said this was a great dish because its sloppiness washed away any pretense, and diners would always “rise from the table as friends.” By this time, she was talking about herself. She’d just read a novel by a then-fashionable and wildly successful Southern author, and was not impressed: “Honey, you may think you’ve got it. But you don’t.”

The last time I saw Eudora, a friend had asked if I might facilitate some inscribed books for Christmas presents. Eudora insisted that we both come over. On the day, I was mortified that my friend was lugging an imposing stack of COLLECTED STORIES—I thought too many. But its author couldn’t have been more gracious, as ever. On her table was the current issue of Newsweek, with its stark black-and-white cover photo of John Lennon. She was quite disturbed over Lennon’s murder, not as a Beatles fan—she said she liked some of their melodies but I didn’t sense any particular passion—and not just for the potential work that the world wouldn’t get to hear, but chiefly for its meaninglessness; why slaughter an artist who had never hurt anyone? The culture of insanity had already introduced itself with Charles Manson, but we had not yet arrived at the point where schoolchildren took revenge on their tormentors with bullets. Eudora was perplexed over Mark David Chapman. Her vast empathetic skills were of no use here. She couldn’t put herself in his place. In the ensuing years, I’m sure she had to wrestle with this problem again and again, but by then I had moved away, to New York. And then she was gone.

Late And Later

January 12, 2016

With the current round of Late-Night Musical Chairs nearly complete (THE DAILY SHOW’s Samantha Bee will finish it next month), it’s a pretty good time to survey the landscape. They say it takes about six months for long-term tv viewing patterns to set in, and Stephen Colbert, James Corden and Trevor Noah haven’t gotten there yet. The seats of Larry Wilmore, Seth Meyers and John Oliver are barely warm, and it still feels a little funny to remember that the current host of THE TONIGHT SHOW is Jimmy Fallon.

378777_origThe most burning question in this real-life game of thrones was, what kind of show would Colbert conjure after dropping the faux right-wing persona he’d been playing for nine years? It turns out the “real” Colbert is a bouncy, brainy fanboy who can fawn over Robert De Niro one moment and joust with Bill Maher the next. One can’t stray too far from the venerable band-and-desk format, but now the band is the versatile, multiethnic Jon Batiste & Stay Human, which plays what its 29-year-old bandleader calls “social music,” meaning the musicians will more than likely parade into the crowd in the best New Orleans tradition. And Colbert’s writing team hasn’t lost its sly sense of just how far to push a bit of mockery.

The switch from David Letterman to Colbert was immediately visual: the band is now to the hosts’s left in the newly digitized Ed Sullivan Theater. Colbert claims that was Letterman’s suggestion, one thing Dave said he regretted from the old show. And remember, the current setup was how the stage looked for Johnny Carson. (My brother’s going to see it live later this month: I’m jealous.) But the more general shift is toward a different avenue. Old-school stand-ups like Dave, Jay Leno and Jon Stewart are gone; only Trevor Noah, who is packed with a world’s worth of characters and dialects, made his living on stand-up. The new hosts come from sketch comedy (Fallon, Meyers), improv (Colbert, Bee, Oliver), theater (Corden) and the writers’ room (Wilmore, Conan O’Brien holding forth on a new network). They can do stand-up, they just aren’t from stand-up.

_85805050_dailyshow1-gettyThe new hosts are starting to imprint their shows. After the new year and several weeks’ worth of viewer reassurance, THE DAILY SHOW changed its theme music and Noah began billboarding each episode by walking into the studio, far from the desk. He occasionally performs the entire first segment (what they call “Act I”), uh, standing up. Colbert bounds on stage at the top of his show and the billboard comes later. After the new year, the funky bass-based lead-in to Colbert’s theme music subtly yielded to Batiste’s piano; I’d imagine it was becoming too familiar.

Two years ago, late night was pretty easily compartmentalized. Leno was the popular one, winning in the ratings; Dave was the smart one, dripping with irony; and Jimmy Kimmel was the funky one, experimenting with the format to provide food for the emerging social media (remember the “music videos” for “I’m F—-ing Matt Damon/Ben Affleck”?). Now everybody wants on YouTube. Fallon may well be the king of the viral video, but his competitors are also dicing their shows to produce five-minute fodder, and Colbert is no exception. On most nights, his headline guest appears in two segments: first comes the expected interview, and then a bit of silly participation, such as three DOWNTON ABBEY stars reading their lines with American accents, or John Krasinski having a fake-vomit-off against Colbert, as his wife Emily Blunt had done the week before. The aim of these goofy stunts is to entertain not only the television audience, but also web surfers for days to come.

Then there are prerecorded “field pieces,” bits shot outside the studio, at which Colbert has always excelled, even back when he and Steve Carell pretended to be news correspondents on THE DAILY SHOW. The only others in his league are Conan and the master, Dave Letterman (who used to show historic field pieces to entertain his studio audience before the show). Colbert’s format keeps things unexpected: a juicy field interview could roll even after the first guest is gone, well into the show. Purpose: no flipping, as Larry Sanders used to say.

It’s in the classic in-studio interview segments where Colbert outdoes Fallon. His guests in his first few months have not only included the obligatory presidential candidates (Jeb Bush inaugurated the interview seat, which is probably as close as he’ll ever come to an inaugural), but Cabinet members, serious authors including Jonathan Franzen and George Saunders (who played the guitar), and interesting notables such as Michelle Dorrance, who won a MacArthur “genius grant” for her tap dancing skills. One of our great improvisers, Colbert is able to pull real emotion from his guests while entertaining. Things seem less scripted and more in the moment. As he told John Dickerson on FACE THE NATION, Colbert is aiming for “discovery, not invention.” His interview with Joe Biden, in which the two men bonded on-air over wrenching family losses, was an instant classic. He shushed a few audience members who were booing Ted Cruz: “he’s my guest.” If the bad vibes between Colbert and Bill Maher — who seemed rigid and out of place — weren’t genuine, then their interview was a master class in performance art. I’m betting they honestly don’t like each other.

watch-john-oliver-onlineColbert and Trevor Noah still look like the new kids, but so did Conan, Jon, Jay and the Jimmys when they first started. In time their presence will feel normal. Nobody has yet deconstructed late-night like Dave did (John Oliver has added real journalism to the satirical news format, completing the circle for young viewers who actually get information that way), but it’s interesting to see the various personalities peeking out from a format that has survived since the days of Jack Paar. Meanwhile, the busiest guy in New York has to be Lorne Michaels, who produces Fallon, Meyers and SNL, all in the same building. Thus, come to think of it, saving NBC a fortune in cab fare.

8/15/16: Comedy Central said today it is pulling the plug on THE NIGHTLY SHOW as of this Thursday, making Larry Wilmore the first-late night casualty.

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