The Month of Judy: Her Birthday and Her Show

She would’ve been 97 years old today…and just to give you an idea, she was born just a few months after Betty White.

It just feels very fitting that she both came into the world and left it in June, the month that is now synonymous with LGBT Pride…and not only that, her death occurred a week before the Stonewall Riots. As a kid, I always assumed her death somehow fueled the riot…which, of course, was a silly notion.

 

I had started a “series” of sorts where I hoped to post various clips of my favorite Judy Garland performances and I wanted to be sure to definitely do so today considering this was her birthday.

 

Today, I decided to focus on her short-lived but now legendary variety series aptly titled THE JUDY GARLAND SHOW, which aired for one season on CBS from 1963-1964. It was a typical case of a series that had a small but strong fan base and relative critical pedigree but they just so happened to air it opposite one of the biggest successes on television: NBC’s western BONANZA.

 

Garland had always been wary of the idea of performing on TV, as a lot of film stars often were, but due to her many trials which also included hefty debts and back taxes, she ended up taking the gig in hopes that her TV salary would help her jump from the red to the black. Garland did end up saying she wanted to spend more time caring for her children so with that and the low ratings, CBS cancelled the show and Garland never truly recovered in the financial department.

 

Her variety show was wonderful, but also incredibly flawed. Garland herself knew her strengths so as the season went along, we got more of Garland singing as opposed to being in sketches…and if she would only have a rapport with her singing guest stars which worked out a lot better.

 

The show also gained a significant boost when after the series began airing, critics and the small audience alike instantly took a dislike to the show’s resident comedian, Jerry van Dyke. After filming his 10th episode, they fired him on the spot and then the remaining episodes proceed much more smoothly.

 

Garland’s performances were splendid on the show, but I am going to limit myself to discussing five as opposed to…well…all of them.

 

“AS LONG AS HE NEEDS ME”

 

https://youtu.be/eT0ms9UdxcE

 

This would’ve been pretty much brand new to most people at the time considering it originated from the musical OLIVER, which had just opened on Broadway the previous year. Definitely one of her more subtle efforts (although it ends with some nice belting and some of her trademark tics) and this is always the version I go to if I ever want to hear the song. I also love the violin accompaniment in the background.

 

“BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC”

 

https://youtu.be/e4Xz7WV_qJs?t=16s

 

-Judy Garland was a close friend of then President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie…and obviously was devastated by his infamous and legendary death in 1963. Following this, she wanted to perform a special song on the show, which in the clip, states that it has been rarely heard on TV. She never explicitly says that it was meant as a dedication to JFK but the story behind it was well known and she got it on the air despite CBS not really wanting the religious song on the air. The result was a very militant and emotional performance that, despite a small lyric flub during the second verse, moved the audience to leap to their feet for a standing ovation. In some ways, I think this is a contender for one of her best performances ever.

 

“GET HAPPY/HAPPY DAYS ARE HERE AGAIN”

 

https://youtu.be/zFVxX3RtyhQ

 

-I do have to say that when it comes to my Gay Card, some people might want it revoked when I say that I have never been a passionate fan of Barbra Streisand. Having said that, her early work which was much more brassy and raw than what she would eventually become by the 70s, is usually always stellar. In many ways, this duet is a passing of the baton and  you can truly sense how floored Garland is by Streisand’s intense presence and unique timbre…and remarkably enough, Garland lets Streisand steal the spotlight because she earned the moment.

 

“OLD MAN RIVER”

 

https://youtu.be/5g4wnWILwSI

 

-Not much to say about this one…but I guess I will come up with something. As a true classic originating from one of the most important musicals ever written (that being SHOWBOAT), I feel like Garland’s take on this song is just, simply, quite powerful. She was always great at finding such rich emotion in whatever she sang.

 

“WEST SIDE STORY Medley” 

 

https://youtu.be/BnYd41IwiJo

 

-I do have to mention that I have never exactly been a big fan of WEST SIDE STORY. I certainly acknowledge its groundbreaking importance in musical theatre and it does have some lovely music at times, but it just never really latched on to me as one of my all-time favorites. The reason I include this particular duet (which was actually lip-synched but whatever) is because both her and Vic Damone sound great together but also, Garland ends the medley while belting an F, which was a higher note than she typically would hit in songs. The first time I recall seeing this clip, I noticed the key change in the final stanza and I thought “Wait, is she going to hit the note I think she is going to hit?”…that she did…and it was glorious. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the reason it was not done live was because she was afraid of the note.

 

So, those are some random selections that stood out for me from her show, and that isn’t even going to her duets with her daughter Liza Minnelli or Ethel Merman and…I could go on but I will stop because they joy will be too much and I am already distracted at work now!

 

Happy Birthday Judy…you were one of a kind and no one will ever come close to what you achieved.

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The Gay That The Lord Hath Made: My Coming Out Story

A few years ago, I was dating this really adorable Jewish guy named Ethan. He was a couple of years younger than me and very in tune with the modern trends and lingo in a way that made me feel ancient even though I was only 26 and he was 23. He grew up in Queens and never really had to deal with the worries of “coming out” or fearing what his parents might think…and in fact, a lot of the guys that I would go on dates with during that particular single phase would often ask about where I came from and usually people are taken aback when I say West Virginia. Sometimes, it really all comes down to who is in your life as to whether or not you can fully come out and be yourself…but at first, I didn’t have that luxury.

 

I bring up Ethan specifically because he was in college at the time and he was doing an assignment where he had to ask several people to write 13 words on a piece of paper that you could say to your 13 year old self.

 

I just remember thinking how my pre-teen years and my early teenage years were, perhaps, the worst time of my life and how much I would refuse to ever relive or thoroughly discuss them again…but then I thought about the-then popular “It gets better” campaign that was flowing around online and how there were so many things I wish I could tell my younger self in hopes that “he” could cope.

 

I eventually decided on this:

 

“You haven’t met the real ‘you’ yet; take more chances and you will”. 

 

When I was 15 years old, I had enrolled in the Intro to Theatre class at my high school because, as I will go into, I loved the idea of being in the arts world since childhood…but I was also INCREDIBLY and PAINFULLY shy and awkward. Then, near the end of the year, the teacher, Kathy Casuccio, had made the final decision that the upcoming Spring Musical was going to be one of my favorites: LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS.

 

She highly encouraged everyone to audition and I remember just sort passively thinking about it and then as I was leaving the classroom, I saw the sign-up sheet and almost as if there were a spotlight shining on it, there was one single slot left open on it…and I distinctly remember her saying “You will never know if you take the chance”.

 

I ended up shocking everyone and got cast as the lead, Seymour Krelborn. 

 

I was not trained as a singer at the time, but I was passable enough…however my own insecurities certainly helped with how Seymour was scripted. Playing this role was perhaps the most important thing that could’ve happened to me. It gave me the drive and the confidence to further pursue the idea of wanting to act. Then came the moment of conflict: Casucciotold us DO NOT MAJOR IN THEATRE IN COLLEGE. We would regret it if we did.

 

For the record, I DID end up doing it. It actually wasn’t my choice to an extent because I went into orientation not really firmly selecting a major but when I got there and my first transcript was handed to me, it said: ANTHONY JAMES HOST, Major: Theatre…so I was just kind of like “Well, okay…I guess I will just stick with this”.

 

It wasn’t that I hated the idea. I was just scared by what she said about how it wouldn’t help us…and to an extent; she was right because most people don’t like the idea of hiring a Theatre major in New York because they are worried we will gladly jump ship the moment we get cast in a big show.

 

Then there was the next hurdle: telling people I was a Theatre major. I felt ashamed about it. Keep in mind, this was a small college in WV and I certainly knew that most of the guys around me in orientation would probably judge me for it.

 

It wasn’t until my freshman year of college began that I faced the first snide comment about my major. It was the first day of my English 101 class on a Tuesday morning bright and early at 8am and the teacher did one of my least favorite things: “Let’s all go around the room and introduce ourselves and tell us yourmajor”. Oh, great. Now, I could’ve lied. It’s not like the teacher would know or that the class would know, but I remember thinking “I like theatre so I don’t want to hide it”.

 

So, it got to me and I just simply said, “Hi. I’m Anthony. I am a Theatre major”.

 

A couple of seats behind me, a frat boy type quietly chuckled and then mumbled: 

 

“YOU’RE GAY”.

 

I can’t tell you how much that hurt and made me feel uncomfortable. I also hadn’t accepted that side of me yet because I was convincing myself for several years at that point that any weird urge I felt towards guys like my best friends Michael or Stephen were just sort of flukes because I was mistaking feelings for friendship…and I had known both for over 10 years at that point.

 

Following that class was my Intro to Theatre History class, so I walked over with my Starbucks in hand and sat in the hallway waiting for the class to start and I was just so numb and terrified. One of my good friends, Sean, whom I had known for years as well and was also an actor (he had been my Orin in LITTLE SHOP), was also in this class. Sean was straight and always had somewhat of a slight conservative edge about him but he also wasn’t opposed to homosexuality. I told him about what happened and I even went as far to say “I think I should consider getting a new Major” and thankfully, he was willing to talk some sense into me. He said “That would be stupid. Why do you care what that guy thinks….or anyone would think for that matter? It is your major and it is what you want to do”. After that, I never gave it a second thought….and that was what began my real journey to truly accepting me for who I was. 

 

So, why all of the fear and paranoia aside from the fact that I grew up in WV…it shouldn’t come as a surprise: religion.

 

Truth be told, the town I grew up in was sort of a rare breed for WV. Morgantown was home to West Virginia University and thanks to that, we got a lot of business and culture that seemed to consistently pour in and it caused the town’s population to rise and the economy to prosper so strongly that right after the 2008 Recession, Brian Williams did a segment on NBC Nightly News devoted to Morgantown and how, unlike all of WV and a lot of the U.S., it was on the rise in more ways than one and even had the lowest unemployment rate in the country. 

 

Morgantown is probably the closest thing WV has to a liberal bubble, but it is nowhere near close to being completely blue (even though Obama carried the county in 2008). The culture within the county, and our close proximity to Pittsburgh, allowed me to be able to take in a lot of artistic opportunities, which proved to be a very vital outlet during a very trying time.

 

As a kid, my family attended Riverside Apostolic Church, which was an Evangelical/Pentecostal fire and brimstone preach fest. When I was REALLY young, I don’t recall having any real aversion to going to church but it was around 1995 that I began to sense something was wrong.

 

I was 7 years old and for that particular week, a husband and wife and their son were coming into town with their Christian Puppet Ministry and one of their stops was our church. I loved puppets as a kid so I was definitely excited and I can recall the week being fun. However, there is one thing about that type of church that some people may not know. As with all organized religion, each denomination almost seems to have their own set of beliefs and picky Christians certainly love to do their Cherry Picking of the Bible.

 

The Apostolic Church believes in order for you to enter the kingdom of heaven, you must repent, be properly baptized, and then you would receive the gift of the Holy Ghost: AKA Speaking in Tongues. I knew about speaking in tongues and as a kid, it was certainly jarring to see people yelling in what appeared to be languages that sounded like Latin or Arabic.

 

After one of these particular youth services, the wife of the Puppet team…and I can’t remember her full name but we referred to her as Sister Hopper…came up to me because she wanted to try to talk to as many of the children as she could. She asked me questions about whether or not I read the Bible every day and if I prayed every day…I said yes. She then asked if I had accepted Jesus as my savior and if I received the gift of the Holy Ghost. I said that I accepted Jesus but that I had not spoken in tongues.

 

With that, she offered this little pearl of “wisdom”:

 

“Well…you know what it means then. You definitely want to get on that, because if Jesus were to come back tomorrow to take us all home to heaven, you wouldn’t be saved and you would go to hell”.

 

I WAS SEVEN YEARS OLD.

 

And she said it with the same urgency as if she were a mother telling her son that he shouldn’t run around the house as opposed to…you know…warning someone that they were going to live for eternity in a land of fire and torture.

 

I’ve never forgotten the sound of her voice or how she looked…and honestly, I would gladly slap that woman in the face now if I had the chance. I definitely put that kind of fear behind me a long time ago, but for what I DID go through and for her to have the audacity to tell a child such a thing was truly abhorrent. Yet, that seemed to be par for the course for many people in that denomination.

 

Since we were fast approaching the end of the 20th century that also meant the early stages of that infamous conspiracy theory Y2K were starting to form. Most people remember Y2K as being a big technological meltdown in which computer systems would crash and airplanes would fall out of the sky and we’d all have to stay in bomb shelters and stock up on bottled water and Ritz Crackers. Religious people seemed to use it as yet another opportunity to claim that Jesus was planning the Second Coming. I even vividly remember during the summer of 1999 seeing a tabloid in the checkout line of a Super Kmart (may it rest in peace) that had some crazy religious zealot claiming he was told that Jesus would be coming back within weeks.

 

This kind of thing freaked me out to no end, even if I was told that his return would be akin to a “thief in the night”…and surprise, surprise, 20 years later, we are still here….perhaps Stephen Sondheim should add a verse to I’m Still Here that taps into this plight.

 

I felt so engrossed in the beliefs of my church that I almost found it incredibly jarring when other people’s lives didn’t match up to mine. I was surprised that other religions didn’t believe in certain things that we did and was even more surprised when I learned that people didn’t even believe in Jesus…or God…or that people considered Jesus and God two different people… but hey, I would rather not go into that stuff. I will probably just irritate myself far too much.

 

I do want to make note of how my first response to atheism was, because we were told they were “lost souls” who were truly sad at heart and that we should pity them. I felt like they were all missing out on something great…but deep down, I still sensed something was wrong with me….and it turns out that the only person missing out on something great was me. 

So, how exactly did I end up coping with a lot of my worries and insecurities?

 

The arts, of course.

 

I began doing everything from watching old and current TV shows, renting movies, reading history books, and exploring various websites on that new hot thing of the time: the internet. In a life where I felt so afraid and nervous and shy and unsure of so much, I found my solace in the entertainment world and the history behind it. First it began with television but then truly expanded to film and theatre and music.

 

By the time I reached college, my original goal was to be a writer/director with less emphasis on acting…but eventually that would be flipped. I wasn’t fully comfortable my freshman year of college not just because of that English class incident, but I was still a guy who had this weighing influence of religion on him…and I was sensing more and more with myself that I wasn’t the person I thought I was. The real journey to coming out began in the summer of 2008, between my freshman and sophomore years of college.

 

I had been cast in a production of 1776 and was going to get a chance to play a small but pivotal supporting role opposite a Theatre Professor whom I adored and a member of the community who was pretty much a legend for his work in the theatre…and that I also quite adore. I remember going to the first read through feeling quite excited about what was going to happen and then I noticed…him.

 

This was Jimmy Clegg, a guy that I sort of knew only because he had been dating a guy who was also in the Theatre program with me…but I had never met him and only saw him one other time in person and only knew his name thanks to Facebook.

 

I saw him sitting across the room and I instantly thought “God, he’s beautiful”. It was the first time I truly thought something “gay” about a guy but didn’t stop to justify it. Instead, it just felt good…and that isn’t to say I wasn’t scared emotionally, but I can’t deny that it was nice to acknowledge it.

 

Of course, I was never going to approach Jimmy…I was still convinced I was being sinful and I also thought he was too good for me. I can also still envision him in my head with his shaggy, trendy brunette hair and his tight fitting clothes with a shiny studded belt. I began fantasizing about him and it began feeling both amazing and depressing all at once because it was just this mixture of elation and sadness because I felt like I was being a bad person for wanting this…and yet, it felt GOOD to feel it.

 

Not long before 1776 opened, Jimmy got into a car accident that totaled his car. He wasn’t seriously injured but he was definitely in pain. I can recall several people asking him how he was doing and he was talking to people more than he ever had (he primarily kept to himself, which there was a reason for that which I won’t go into here). I saw this as a chance to try to talk to him and I finally mustered up the courage to do it after the rehearsal. I am not sure what I really expected to gain from this as I didn’t feel like I was ready to pursue this side of me…not to mention, he was dating someone.

 

I did approach him and I distinctly remember he was texting on his phone and he barely looked up at me while I asked him about how he was feeling. After a brief moment, I just said “Well…take care”…and with no acknowledgment, he just looked down at his phone as if he was just happy to have me go away (and there was a reason for this). At that point, I kind of just wrote him off as being an asshole and let it go.

 

Then, that fall, he enrolled into the college and began taking classes in our Theatre program…and I found out he broke up with his boyfriend. Around that same time, other people in the department were talking about how fun Jimmy was: catty, loved to drink, social butterfly…and he was an amazing pianist to boot on top of being an amazing singer.

 

I got angry. Why the hell did he brush me off?! I became semi-obsessed with him at that point trying to figure out his deal.

 

This continued into the Spring Semester when we both got cast in a murder mystery play called THE MUSICAL COMEDY MURDERS OF 1940, which was fun to be in but the writing was not exactly stellar. During the process, I talked to the other cast members to be sure but I rarely said much to Jimmy…however, by the end of the run, he and I began talking some and it eventually led me to do something that was rather self-serving.

 

Back in those days of Facebook Notes (remember those?), I decided to post one about my experience doing the murder mystery because at that point, it was my first time getting to play a lead while in college and I thoroughly enjoyed my role and working with that ensemble…but I used it as a way to connect with Jimmy behind the guard of a computer. I remember gushing about how much I was impressed by him and, also, that he made a beautiful woman.

 

So…as I had found out not too long before from someone else in our department, Jimmy was intending to have a sex-change operation. To me, this was basically a gift from the heavens. I was literally telling myself that this was the most perfect thing that could happen: he would become she and then I wouldn’t have to come out.

 

Oh, silly 20 year old me.

 

That April, about a month after the show closed, he and I actually started messaging each other and I began flirting with him. At first, he wasn’t sure what to make of it but he opened up and said that he felt the same way about me but didn’t really know what to do about it because everyone thought I was straight (or rather, a closet case). We agreed to hang out the following day…and in whirlwind fashion, we fell in love.

 

After a couple of weeks of dating and fooling around and sleeping with each other, I officially asked him out on May 5, 2009 after coming back from dinner at a Chinese restaurant. I can remember being in my car driving back to his apartment. I expressed concerns about my family or certain people back in my hometown learning about it, but he said he was willing to be a secret of sorts since he actually came from a more intense religious environment than I did (even though he was out to his family, the tension among them was incredibly uncomfortable as they were true Southern Baptists). Once I heard that, I just said “Well I don’t want to wait anymore, so will you be mine?” And I remember he started crying and repeatedly said “Yes!” over and over again.

 

So, as it stands, Jimmy became known as Jamie and now goes by Anessa Marie and is living her life as a Trans woman here in New York. We were together for 6 years and despite it being incredibly rocky for the majority of the time, I think she and I both agree that it had a profound effect on us both. She was the first love of my life.

 

As for coming out to EVERYONE, to this day, I still haven’t fully done it…my parents sort of figured it out on their own but they never really confronted me about it. After they divorced, my father met a woman who had a more liberal mindset on social issues and she was very key to helping him accept that I was gay. Even though I have never blatantly said to my father that I am gay, he knows I was with Anessa and he knows I have a boyfriend named Brian now and whomever I may be dating, they would be welcomed in my home should I bring them back to visit…in the end, that is all I can ask for. Other family members, such as my sister Rachel and Cousin Laura definitely know and I’ve been more candid with them about it…because frankly it was always easier. 

 

When I moved to New York City over 6 years ago, I was still with Anessa but then after living here for a year, we broke up after a very tumultuous relationship and it was the right thing to do. However, I came out (so to speak) when I was 20 and jumped into a relationship with Anessa. I never really got to fully explore this gay side of me and now here I was, just about to turn 26 in New York City and I hadn’t been on a date with a single guy.

 

I guess you could say I was lucky that I had the exposure of being in a city like this to be able to explore and have so many opportunities but it was also incredibly daunting at the same time.

 

I met guys, went on dates, hooked up a lot, had my heart broken, and sadly I know I hurt a guy or two at the time, but in the end, I sort of found myself…or at least I found more of me that I didn’t even know was there.

 

During that time, I got especially attached to that Ethan fellow I mentioned at the beginning of this novel of a blog post. Him asking me to come up with that phrase for his school assignment was a big turning point for me emotionally: I did feel like I had found “me” and despite everything I had gone through emotionally, I felt like it was all worth it in the end. I have no shame for acknowledging that I am gay…and I would hope that any other young kid out there who has the same fears I did will have the same chance to come out of their shell and be able to accept who they are and be happy. 

 

So, as I currently sit here in June 2019 with the 50thAnniversary of the Stonewall Riots approaching, I am definitely proud that I accepted who I am and I am beyond grateful to those brave souls who fought for our civil rights during that time.

 

And with that, all I can really say is…I could use a drink.

The Month of Judy: A Celebration of the Lady Garland

June is Pride Month for the LGBT community and the allies that stand beside us…and it almost seems fitting that one of the true first Gay icons both entered and left the world during that month…in fact, her death happened just a week before the Stonewall Riots occurred in 1969. So, it is the 50th Anniversary of those riots that lead us to celebrating LGBT Pride every June and it is also the 50th Anniversary of the death of my favorite entertainer to have ever lived: that brassy, eccentric, witty icon that was born Frances Gumm but became Judy Garland.

My obsession with Garland came at a very young age and I always like to joke that my love for her was the earliest sign that I was an old queen who was unaware of his throne because I was in a bolted up closet. I think most people were introduced to Garland through THE WIZARD OF OZ and it goes without saying that I adored the movie, and still do. There was something enchanting about her voice and I can still vividly remember when I first heard her sing “Over the Rainbow”…I was probably 3 or maybe 4 years old.

Moving ahead a couple of years, I was at my Grandmother’s house and she wanted to watch MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS on TV because she hadn’t seen it in quite some time and she told me, “Judy Garland is in this…that lady from THE WIZARD OF OZ. Maybe you’ll like it”. I was maybe 7 at this point…and I had already developed a love for the past when it came to movies and television and music so I was perhaps more gung-ho at watching this movie set in 1904 rather than watching what my then-best friend was obsessed: the Power Rangers.

It was this movie that truly set off my admiration for her. Not only was the movie so glorious to look at with all of its rich colors, but Garland herself never looked more inviting and warm…and it came as no surprise when I learned Vincente Minnelli intentionally sought out to give Garland the best showcase possible.

I was curious to check out more of her work, so I turned to the hot new craze of the time: the World Wide Web. After a few minutes of connecting via dial-up, and knowing I only had a few minutes as my mom didn’t want me to keep tying up the phone lines (if only these young kids knew the struggle of early internet usage), I sought to print out a list of her entire filmography.

Several minutes passed as the dot-matrix printer slowly went line by line printing off each film she made…and from there, I tried to seek out her movies whether it had been through renting them or finding them on cable.

So, for the next couple of weeks, I am going to post a few selections of her work that I love and discuss them (albeit briefly or in rambling mode).

Since I brought up MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, I will start with that and focus on three particular performances from that film:

“THE BOY NEXT DOOR”

-In what is not often discussed as much as some of her other classics, this sweet and sensitive song has always been what I think of when I think of Garland at her most beguiling…and so much so that I chose an image of her from this song to be my Facebook cover photo to coincide with her birthday, death, and Pride. I think the song works so well because it taps into something that many of us have always felt: a longing for someone who is so close but, in some ways, feels so far away.

“THE TROLLEY SONG”

-In what was the biggest success from the film at the time (for example, winning the Oscar for Best Original Song), I would say that “THE TROLLEY SONG” is one of my personal favorites for sure…and I can’t tell you how many times I have gotten on the subway here in NYC and think about this song. In fact, a few years ago, I was on a date with this really adorable guy. After dinner, we walked through Washington Square Park to get to the train and once we got on the crowded train, he rested his head on my shoulder and snuggled up against me…simply put, I was in heaven. At the time, we both lived in Queens, but he lived at the end of the train line in Forest Hills whereas I lived in Astoria several stops before him… I offered to stay with him till his stop. Once we reached Forest Hills, he said to me “I almost feel like I had the closest case of THE TROLLEY SONG I will ever have!”…and with that, I planted a big kiss on him for sharing the same thought I was having. Even though I ended up parting ways with that guy, I often think back on that moment fondly because I, too, never thought I’d get to have my own little “Trolley” moment.

“HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS”

-Every Christmas, this is my go-to post to put up…sometimes traditions are just worth keeping. While this version of the song is somewhat different from the more well-known versions nowadays that slightly alter the lyrics and take on a more hopeful tone, I still can’t help but love the haunting nature of this one. It is such a peak emotional moment in the film and in some ways, it felt like the first moment in Garland’s career where she took on a more adult role as she cared for her younger sister.

So, I leave you with that for now but I do intend to continue my Judy Parade over the next several days!

Random Update: How Life and Wallowing Makes Me Long for the Arts

I began this blog way back in December…and for the first couple of months; I would say I was pretty good about posting a fairly decent amount of output. Getting a new dog in February sort of distracted me, especially since I felt a little overwhelmed with all of the trials of making sure she was healthy and buying her food and chew toys, etc…and it sort of just drained me to the point where it became hard to focus on much else. That isn’t to say that I don’t love the dog, but on one level, having a dog that doesn’t have the capability of being left alone out of fear that she will destroy the apartment, not to mention won’t really take to being crated, has sort of left me feeling out of the loop in terms of being involved in a lot.

 Last year, I had the privilege of performing in a friend’s play for a Theatre Festival but during that same time, I was also dealing with a lot of emotional stress as I was planning a move to a new apartment and then found out my then job would be ending due to the business closing…and it was a really mixed up affair because I obviously wanted the financial stability but at the same time, I HATED that job and was at a point where I simply couldn’t stand my boss and how she treated myself and her other employees. I basically stopped going on auditions around that time because I felt like my main job in life needed to be to find a steady day job so I could get my head above water again. Every interview I went on, and I probably only went on 7-8 out of several dozen applications I applied for, just seemed to go nowhere and it would get so incredibly frustrating that it was hard to remain positive about the whole thing.

 I was so desperate that I had to do the very last thing that I wanted to do, which was return to my old UPS job which paid so little and was run with such horrific laissez-fairemanagement…on top of dealing with the general public…something I was DYING to get away from after doing it for over 5 years. 

What I missed was working in an office, because there, I often felt like I only had to deal with a core group of people and there was a sense of sameness and routine that I craved. People would often wonder why I wanted that “same” feeling but frankly, I think due to the fact that I want to be an actor, I am sincerely not going to have that much passion for a job that isn’t related to the arts in any way…and I have managed to avoid being a waiter so I never really had that path to fall back on as many other actors do (and I do feel that it is the ideal in terms of flexibility).

Eventually, with the recommendation of one of my cast mates from the Shakespearean show I did early last year, I went into a Temp Agency and after a couple of months, I was eventually hired as Office Services Coordinator for a Private Investment company. In terms of pay, it wasn’t stellar but it was certainly much better than what I was making at UPS and was actually a little more than what I was making at the job I had just gotten laid off from.

So, for the past several months, I have sort of just been trying to maintain myself financially but it has been incredibly hard. Even before getting my dog, I feel like it was almost impossible to maintain a savings account and I felt like I was getting less of a chance to do what I wanted to do…and sure, I may have chosen not to audition (except for a couple of stray auditions here and there) but I also wasn’t seeing nearly as much theatre as I would’ve liked and it got to a point where that would both frustrate and depress me. It was just that feeling of “I am living in New York like I have always wanted to do, but I am not getting to be a part of or witness what I wanted to be here for”.

I eventually let my subscription to Backstage slip because it was hard to pay to renew it, plus I feel like I have become incredibly ill-prepared in that my headshots are not that good and I no longer have a wealth of monologues or songs at my disposal…and a lot of that costs money that I can’t really spare. So, in many ways, I have shut down…but I feel like I am getting to the point where I need to bounce back.

I need to try really hard to rebuild my repertoire and find a way to gain the money to get new headshots and renew my subscriptions to get audition notices. As it stands, I am 30 years old and I feel like that while on some level, a lot of my frustrations and lack of pursuing things have been valid, I also can’t deny that it is still something of an excuse towards being a lack of motivation. 

While I certainly don’t dislike my current job, it also isn’t what I hope to be doing for several years, especially at the pay rate…and it has its occasional downsides like any day job does. I just feel like I need to try to force myself to do more but I’ve been having problems trying to find that spark to get me going.

 Here’s hoping that in the time between now and 2020, that some big changes come my way…or at least that I am TRYING to pursue things rather than letting the parade pass me by…It is time to let Ephraim go.

Reacting to the Oscars or: HOW ON EARTH CAN A MOVIE LIKE GREEN BOOK WIN?

In 1990, the Academy Awards gave the Best Picture Oscar to a movie by the name of DRIVING MISS DAISY in what was considered a mild upset over the frontrunner, Oliver Stone’s BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY. One of the reasons that many doubted the potential of DRIVING MISS DAISY winning was that its director, Bruce Beresford, was not nominated and at the time, no film had won Best Picture without a Best Director nomination since 1933. The statistics were not in its favor. However, it pulled off the win along with a Best Actress win for Jessica Tandy, an Adapted Screenplay win (where it also beat JULY), and Best Makeup. One of the biggest controversies that year was the snubbing of DO THE RIGHT THING in Best Picture and Best Director for Spike Lee, who did manage an Original Screenplay nomination (that he lost to DEAD POETS SOCIETY, which I mean, I liked that film, but still….)

A lot of critics raged at the time at how the Oscars seemed to ignore what was such a bold and brash movie that was mostly about an African-American community by an African-American filmmaker. With that outrage in mind, could it be that perhaps some voters were swayed to vote for DAISY, a movie about the friendship between a black driver and the white lady he drives around during segregated times in the South, to save face?

I suppose anything is possible. I actually liked DAISY even if I wouldn’t have voted for it, but it was certainly a fairly divided selection amongst film fans. The truth is, the Academy is mostly white and male and older…there is SOME diversity that has recently been added but there still seems to be enough of an old guard that brings down some of the potential for more vibrant selections.

GREEN BOOK winning last night was an eerie symmetry to the DAISY scenario, even down to plot points and missing out on a Director nomination. It is also proof of how negative bias can affect films that are better (which, I get, is still subjective) and that the preferential ballot can allow for winners that would possibly never happen if they just stuck to a simple “the popular vote wins”. Think of the Preferential Ballot as the Electoral College if you will.

Now, I may knock this form of voting a little bit but it did allow for a movie like MOONLIGHT to win while major frontrunner LA LA LAND received a significant amount of backlash that seemed to show a lot of voters must’ve ranked it lower on their lists just to spite it. MOONLIGHT was the first movie to win Best Picture that featured an all-black ensemble and to have a LGBT-theme as a major plot point. However, with this type of ballot voting, it is possible LA LA LAND might have still pulled it off.

GREEN BOOK, on the other hand, is at the other end of the spectrum. It has an 80% on Rotten Tomatoes which, while not a horrible rating, is pretty low by Best Picture standards, especially when most recent winners have been consistently above 90%. You’d have to go back to some of the winners of the early years of Oscars to find films with much lower ratings, but in recent years, movies like FORREST GUMP (77%) and CRASH (74%) prove that sometimes having the right amount of support from the right people is all you need…and those two films managed to win on a popular vote system! I do have to wonder if we might have been spared wins by films like this had this type of voting existed back then. It is very possible.

GREEN BOOK has that status of seeming important, and I certainly don’t want to degrade a film that is making a point about race. The problem is that it is another prime example of a “white savior” movie where white people can go the movies, sit down, and be like “Wow…look how great we are!”

It also doesn’t help that the family and estate of Dr. Shirley has come out against the film as not really portraying him in the light he deserved and that the film has taken liberties with the plot. At my job today, I overheard a couple of people (middle aged white guys I might add) who stated “But that’s Hollywood!” Yes, it IS Hollywood…and sometimes, it can be something to let slide. I mean, BLACKKKLANSMAN took a lot of liberties with its plot but it was still a much better film as it dealt with the topics at hand with drama and humor much more successfully than GREEN BOOK ever achieved…and of course it helped that it was crafted by Spike Lee and not the gruff white man who gave us DUMB & DUMBER and SHALLOW HAL.

I didn’t predict GREEN BOOK to win, even though I knew there was a path in which it easily could. 

-It won the Golden Globe for Best Comedy/Musical over THE FAVOURITE. This doesn’t always guarantee Oscar success but the path truly started here.

-What really set off the trajectory was its win at the PGA, which in the past has started the train that led to films like THE KING’S SPEECH overtaking THE SOCIAL NETWORK or last year when THE SHAPE OF WATER managed to win after the race seemed to be forming between THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI and LADYBIRD.

-There was a hurdle in the fact that Peter Farrelly was snubbed for Best Director at the Oscars, which even though this has been a statistic that was overcome by DRIVING MISS DAISY and more recently by ARGO, it seemed like a major hurdle. The big thing is that most of the films that people felt had a pretty good shot at the award had a hurdle:

-ROMA is a Foreign Language film, which has never won a Best Picture Oscar, and it was the first movie to be nominated that is streaming on NETFLIX. It was uncharted territory in some ways, but the immense support for director Alfonso Cuaron and the critical pedigree made it seem like it had the best potential in some ways. It also wasn’t nominated for Best Editing, which has been a surprisingly strong indicator for Best Picture contenders as only two films have won Best Picture without at least getting nominated Editing. Truthfully, the film didn’t exactly require flashy editing so its snub wasn’t that surprising and frankly, I didn’t think that was the biggest hurdle for it to overcome.

-THE FAVOURITE is an interesting case because it tied ROMA for getting the most nominations and managed key nominations in all of the categories where a lot of the other major contenders missed. The biggest problem it had was that it simply wasn’t winning in Picture or Director awards to give it any kind of momentum. The other thing that hurt THE FAVOURITE was perhaps the fact that it was a film led by three women and perhaps the quirkier storytelling motifs and the lesbian angle made some of the more conservative members uncomfortable.

-The same sentiment can be said for BLACKKKLANSMAN as well as it got in everywhere it needed to for key nominations but it simply just wasn’t winning. 

GREEN BOOK benefitted from being a fairly typical paint-by-numbers buddy film while also having an important “message”. It is also seemed like the kind of film that would get a lot of #2 or #3 votes of a Preferential Ballot, which is what I would bet, tipped it over the edge. 

In 2016, the Best Picture was all over the place. Early in the season, SPOTLIGHT was getting a lot of buzz but you also had the commercial and critical success of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (not that it ended up getting any real major wins near the end) and the sudden build of movies like THE REVENANT and THE BIG SHORT. The problem with those latter two movies was that they were incredibly polarizing whereas SPOTLIGHT was a more traditional kind of movie that dealt with a serious issue and was well made on top of it. THE BIG SHORT won the PGA while THE REVENANT won the DGA…there didn’t seem to be an overwhelming amount of passion for either of them. SPOTLIGHT had the advantage of being the perfect top 3 vote getter.

On one hand, the award season has become incredibly predictable to the point where it isn’t fun anymore. However, we always seem to get an acting race or two where there may be some suspense (this year’s Supporting Actress race is the best example), but it does seem like Best Picture is a little more of a dicey endeavor to predict.

One has to wonder what type of response this will cause within the Academy. I am not expecting any crazy kind of procedure changes, but they have responded to controversies in the past with altering their protocols.

In 2009, after there was much uproar that THE DARK KNIGHT, and to a lesser extent, WALL-E, were snubbed for Best Picture in favor of a movie like THE READER, then Academy President Sid Ganis held a press conference that summer in which he announced that they intended to increase the Best Picture race nomination limit from 5 to 10…although now it is a sliding scale in which the nominees get in based on how many number 1 votes they receive, so we could get 7 nominees, 8, 9, or 10….the past couple of years we’ve gotten 9 but this year it was 8. This HAS led to some great films to get in that may not have otherwise (animated efforts like UP or TOY STORY 3) but it still managed to allow weird selections like THE BLIND SIDE or EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE sneak in.I don’t know if they would ever stop doing the Preferential Ballot. It has allowed some good films (SPOTLIGHT), great films (THE SHAPE OF WATER), and masterpieces (MOONLIGHT) to win but the GREEN BOOK win shows how horrific it can be.

As for the rest of the night, the wins for Malek and Ali were pretty much expected (although I was part of the group that was predicting Richard E. Grant over Ali in hopes that maybe the Academy would vote for the best performance and because Ali won two years ago…and the anonymous ballots showed surprising amounts of support for him), but the original favorite in Supporting Actress, Regina King, pulled it off and has become only the second woman to win an acting Oscar without a SAG or BAFTA nod.

Best Actress had some people debating if perhaps the power of Olivia Colman’s tragicomic performance in THE FAVOURITE would pull it off, especially if those weren’t overly invested in the overdue narrative for Glenn Close…not to mention, MANY of the anonymous voter polls showed massive support for Colman…but that can be misleading. Richard E. Grant had the poll tallies but lost to Ali and in previous races, mild favorites like Sylvester Stallone back in 2015 were heavy in the polls but he lost in an upset to Mark Rylance. 

The truth is, I think Glenn Close winning would’ve been deserved not just as a career award but the performance itself was also very good. However, I cannot begrudge Olivia Colman winning. Her performance was truly unique and feels unlike many other Best Actress wins in recent memory. Some do argue that perhaps she is a Supporting character, but I do think that it is more borderline-to-lead. I think it is more ridiculous that Emma Stone was in Supporting when she probably had the most screen time out of the three ladies (Weisz had the least but even she was borderline lead in my eyes). Colman’s presence in this movie was absolutely remarkable; she had a certain command being royalty but there was also this unwieldy and oaf-like quality to it that she seemed to tweak in certain moments that could work for laughs, for tragedy, and for strength. Colman has been quite the popular star in England for years but hasn’t really been known highly to American audiences unless they caught her name in projects like THE NIGHT MANAGER or FLEABAG or already know that she is Claire Foy’s replacement on THE CROWN…which certainly gives her profile an even bigger boost. It is a great year ahead for her and I couldn’t be happier.

I am little bit bewildered by the massive love BLACK PANTHER and BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY received in the tech categories. I feel like both won primarily for the fact that they were popular movies and many voters just checked them off. I can see the merit behind a lot of BLACK PANTHER’s wins but I feel rather pissed about BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY as its Editing and Sound had no business winning, especially the former as it felt quite sloppy and not particularly well done.

The ceremony itself certainly moved by at a fairly swift pace without a host and the slightly truncated song performances. It did seem a little bit harsh though how the cut off some people during speeches and also shut the spotlight off on them…that isn’t as common. They did seem to let Rami Malek speak for what felt like an incredibly long amount of time by comparison. As a whole, I thought the ceremony was also a little boring too…which, I mean, most people always find it boring but I certainly was finding myself more distracted away from watching than normal.

So, that’s that. Pretty soon, certain film websites (some sort of even have the forum posts already) will be posting very early predictions for NEXT YEAR’s Oscars based on early buzz and speculation. Sometimes it can be surprising how early on the trends can be picked up but most of the time, certain films and performances just don’t live up to the hype.

SEE YOU IN 2020!! (well…for the Oscars I mean…I will still be posting obviously…)

 

 

 

2019 Academy Award Predictions

Oh gosh….I couldn’t even begin to tell you how big of a day this used to be for me back in pre-teen and teenage years. I LOVED the movie world and despite the political and warped methods that many (aka ALL) award shows tend to follow, I lived for award season and would read everything article and watch any television special that focused on the prognosticating of who would win an award.

I stopped being as avid a filmgoer during my college years (the last film year I was heavily involved in as a passionate follower was 2008), but I’ve kept up with some of the seasons since, particularly the past couple of years. This year, I’ve been following it more than I had been in the past but I also haven’t had much passion for it. The truth is that a lot of the movies that year weren’t that strong for me, which doesn’t exactly make me super eager.

Nevertheless, I’m going to give my predictions for the Oscars as they air this evening!

Best Picture: ROMA

Spoiler: GREEN BOOK

Who should win? THE FAVOURITE

-I think ROMA is definitely the odds on favorite here as it has the critical pedigree, not to mention winning such key awards as the DGA for its director Alfonso Cuarón. It winning would be historical not only for the fact that it’s a NETFLIX film but more importantly, it would be the FIRST Foreign Language film to win this award in the Academy’s 91 year history, which is kind of a shame…but it is a glass ceiling that needs broken. However, can the NETFLIX bias hurt it? I think it’s possible. And the preferential ballot system used to vote for this award could hurt it if many people vote it lower to negatively affect its chances. If it were to lose, who would then win? I would have to say GREEN BOOK, despite its Director snub. It has a chance to win Original Screenplay and is a strong contender to win Sup. Actor, and it managed to win the PGA for Best Picture which also votes on a Preferential Ballot. The film also has its controversies over being considered to white-washed and paint by numbers, but that could be why some sadly vote for it. I personally would love to see THE FAVOURITE win. It has a shot at winning a couple of tech prizes along with Original Screenplay and even pulling off acting wins for Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz. It’s also tied with ROMA with the most nominations. The downside is that it hasn’t really won anywhere except for primarily at BAFTA and it lost Best Picture there.

BEST DIRECTOR, Alfonso Cuarón, ROMA

Spoiler: Spike Lee, BLACKKKLANSMEN

Who should win? Cuarón

-I think even if ROMA loses Best Picture, that Cuarón will still take this. It’s his passion project and he did a masterful job created this world from his past, and he’s basically swept the directing awards from the precursors. The only person I could see upsetting him is Spike Lee if they REALLY feel bad about this being his first directing nomination…but I’d be surprised if he pulled it off in this category.

BEST ACTOR: Rami Malek, BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

Spoiler: Christian Bale, VICE

Who should win? Bradley Cooper, A STAR IS BORN

-It seems to be the general consensus that Cooper screwed up by mainly campaigning as a director rather than for his acting in the film…but once again, it shows how stupid the political aspects are during the process of award season. I think he did very well in the movie, not to mention doing his own singing and guitar playing whereas front runner Malek didn’t really do anything that came close. I think this is a good place where you could honor Cooper with a deserved Oscar not just for a worthy performance but also for his work on the whole film. As it stands, Malek is probably going to win and most of the internet isn’t too thrilled about that…but many aren’t as passionate about Bale either. It almost seems like Cooper is the fan favorite.

Best Actress: Glenn Close, THE WIFE

Spoiler: Olivia Colman, THE FAVOURITE

Who should win? Colman

-There are rumblings that Colman’s support is growing and a lot of the anonymous ballots are showing that same support, but that could just be a fluke (it has been in the past). As it stands, I’m going to be happy either way because it will be nice to see Glenn Close FINALLY win an Oscar when she should already have one or two on her mantle…and the good news is that her performance is also very good and worthy in its own right (much like when Geraldine Page finally won for THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL). However, in my own Oscar world, Close would have an Oscar for FATAL ATTRACTION and possibly one more for either GARP or ALBERT NOBBS, so I’d give my vote to Olivia Colman, who walked the line between camp and drama with such perfection and ease that I was truly astounded.

Best Supporting Actor: Richard E. Grant, CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?

Spoiler (if not, the winner): Mahersala Ali, GREEN BOOK

Who should win? Grant

-This is my “no guts, no glory” pick and I know I’m not alone. The truth is Mahersala Ali is the odds on favorite and there is no denying his appeal and talent, but he already won an Oscar two years ago for a performance that honestly wasn’t particularly stellar. Here, he is basically commuting category fraud and while he has more to work with than his winning performance in MOONLIGHT, I still just feel like the timing is oddly working in his favor even though many often don’t win second Oscars this fast. The reason I’m going for Grant is this sneaking hopeful feeling that maybe some people will see that his performance is truly magnificent (and actually SUPPORTING) and want to acknowledge a great character actor with an award since Ali already has one and honestly may have more chances to get a second. And even though I acknowledged the misleading nature of the anonymous voter polls, Grant has basically showed up as the winner in ALL of them except for maybe two that I’ve read out of 90. It’s a risky choice but I want to go for it. As for the others, Driver and especially Rockwell should be happy to be nominated. Sam Elliot seemed poised to be a possible James Coburn/Jack Palance/Don Ameche veteran selection early on but I don’t think it’ll happen. While he wouldn’t be my pick, he did do a nice job with his brief moments in A STAR IS BORN.

Best Supporting Actress: Regina King, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK

Spoiler: Rachel Weisz, THE FAVOURITE or Marina del Tavira, ROMA

Who should win? Weisz

-This is probably the most suspenseful and exciting category of the night. You have a person like King who was considered an early front runner based on her critic award sweep (although those matter less in today’s Oscar work) and her wins at the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards…but then she got snubbed at SAG and BAFTA which indicated a potential lack of industry support. SAG was won by perennial Oscar snubbee Emily Blunt while BAFTA went to Weisz, which many suspected. Amy Adams wasn’t really able to gain much traction despite being overdue as well, but the general consensus seems to be this isn’t her best work and the film is polarizing so she may have to wait and keep being a bridesmaid. Emma Stone is probably giving her best performance so far in her career (found her somewhat overrated in her Oscar winning LA LA LAND performance), but she hasn’t gained traction her plus I feel that is she somewhat overshadowed in presence by her two costars. The big surprise nomination was Marina del Tavira who did a lovely job in ROMA…and truth be told, the nomination and the fact this category is so warped leads me to believe she has a shot of pulling off a MAJOR upset. She could win if they really decide to go cuckoo for ROMA and want to give it an acting win. It wouldn’t be a bad choice as it does feel like a very real and lived in performance which a couple of great emotional and flashy moments. As it stands, I’m going to tentatively go for King just because I do think she is well liked in the industry and perhaps Oscar voters won’t want to give Weisz a second Oscar (although they may give Ali one).

Best Original Screenplay: THE FAVOURITE

Spoiler: GREEN BOOK

Who should win? THE FAVOURITE

-Even the Screenplay categories have been odd this season. The WGA gave this category to the snubbed EIGHTH GRADE, while the awards seemed to have been split between THE FAVOURITE, GREEN BOOK, and FIRST REFORMED. You also could even consider the fifth nominee ROMA in that regard if they really do love the movie. As it stands, and I’m certainly not alone in predicting it, I want to say this is going to go to THE FAVOURITE and I think it certainly deserves it.

Best Adapted Screenplay: BLACKKKLANSMAN

Spoiler: IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK or CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?

Who should win? I honestly don’t have a preference here-

-While Barry Jenkins seemed to be the early frontrunner for this award for BEALE STREET, it seemed as though the tides were changing when the support for the film seemed to wane plus some seemed to feel that the script wasn’t as strong as his winning work two years ago from MOONLIGHT. This race is as also seen as a way to finally honor Spike Lee with an Oscar while the WGA ended voting for the very writerly driven script of FORGIVE ME. I am leaning toward the combo of overdue and good script and the fact that it’s a BP nominee and predicting BLACKKKLANSMAN. It’s been 20 years since a film won this award without being nominated for Best Picture so I’ll stick with the statistic on a somewhat confident level.

So we shall see what happens tonight!

Toasters and Typewriters: A Review of the Roundabout Revival of TRUE WEST

There is a certain grimy and dirty polish to the work of Sam Shepard that seems to make people debate over whether they really love him or just simply don’t understand the appeal. While I have always admired the work of Sam Shepard, I have never been a passionate fan like I have been for the works of Edward Albee, Eugene O’Neill, or August Wilson.

 

Shepard represented a sort of rough around the edges party boy born out of the Easy Rider milieu of the late 60s and a lot of that style flowed into his work in a way that was drastically different from many of his contemporaries.

 

I would have to say that his masterpiece is more than likely his 1980 offering called TRUE WEST, which is currently being revived by Roundabout Theatre Company on Broadway at their American Airlines Theatre. 

 

This particular production is helmed by British director James MacDonald, who has frequently directed works by CarylChurchill, Christopher Shinn, and Sarah Kane. It stars Oscar nominee Ethan Hawke in the role of violent drifter older brother Lee and also Paul Dano as Austin, the younger and fairly successful screenwriter brother who is seeing his brother for the first time in five years while he is staying at their mother’s house while she goes on a trip.

 

Before I go further, I want to discuss my history with this play a little bit. When I was a senior in college, we had to choose a scene with our given partner to do in class. I wanted something challenging but also from something I absolutely loved. I really pushed to do the drunk scene of Jamie’s from O’Neill’s opus LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, but the truth was, Edmund really didn’t get to do as much in that scene so looking back, I can see why my partner wasn’t as into the idea. He actually wanted to tackle TRUE WEST and between the two of us, he had more of Austin tendencies than Lee’s, but I was also incredibly far from Lee.

 

Lee is a slovenly violent man who oozes masculinity…that was not me at all and I didn’t feel comfortable portraying it. The final results were basically disastrous. I didn’t put in the work I should have been but honestly, even if I had, I would’ve come off as incredibly miscast and awkward. Still, I put my guard up and just sort of admitted defeat and/or unintentional sabotage. So, as it stands, I have spent several years away from this material and was curious to go back to see it with a much more enlightened state of mind.

 

TRUE WEST is basically a sibling rivalry story at its most simplistic core. It also shows how someone that may be an amateur could have their own interesting ideas over someone who may be trying too hard to think of their own even though they are the professional in this situation.

 

Austin is married, has children, and is fairly successful as a writer, although it is implied that he may be struggling more now than he had been (it’s actually a flaw in the text as well as how it is presented via the actors/director) and when he plans to meet with a big Hollywood producer the next day, Lee shows up after Austin requests him to stay away and he ends up stealing the spotlight and even gets the producer to read a treatment idea that he has for a script, which Austin finds absolutely ludicrous. Still, the producer is oddly intrigued and Lee tries to convince Austin to help him write the script. What evolves from here is a melding of their two worlds as you sort of see that maybe these two brothers aren’t so different after all and that perhaps they bring out the best and worst in each other at various times.

 

Ethan Hawke is quite the remarkable Lee in that he basically reinvented the role under MacDonald’s direction. Normally, Lee is portrayed as a rather brutally dark character that is quite menacing…and sure, that quality is there, but Hawke imbues him with this almost lovable, sarcastic side that is actually surprisingly fantastic. I can see why some who may be more intensely devoted to the material would hate the switch, but I found it to be refreshing and also quite entertaining. 

 

Paul Dano is a lovely actor and one of my favorites to come out of my generation, but in this role, he feels a little inconsistent and out of sorts. Austin is a deceptively tricky role because you have to start out as the “voice of reason” and “the sane one” while trying not to necessarily disappear behind Lee…and then you have to gradually descend into a drunken stupor as Lee’s demeanor sort of rubs off on him.

 

Act Two takes a very absurd turn when you see Lee take on more of an Austin approach trying to write his own script idea while Austin is laying on the countertop wasted out of his mind. However, there is still a sense of danger and menace missing ends up making the finale feel less tense than other productions have managed to accomplish.

 

When their mother comes home from her trip to Alaska, she just looks around her house as if the boys accidentally shattered a vase as opposed to the absolute disaster of pulled out cabinet doors and dead plants in full supply. It IS admittedly funny to see and the actress (Mary Louise Burke, who is known to many as the “That’s not how any of this works!” lady) does it very well but I can see why some may not like the angle. She treats them more like young children rather than the wild animal angle that many productions have taken in the past.

 

In the end, as someone who isn’t completely devoted to TRUE WEST but still views it as the masterpiece of one of the most prolific playwrights of the 70s and 80s, I found this to be a very well done production that took some chances and they mostly paid off…if you are willing to give them an open mind.

When Fandom Dims: A Random Discussion about DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES

Wine can often get better with age, so is it possible that various forms of entertainment can as well? I do think films and television shows can age well, but even some of the best can suffer from being too topical or rough continuity errors.  You have some sitcoms like THE GOLDEN GIRLS, which is still highly beloved by many in syndication (and I adore it too), but the truth is, the show was also one of the worst in terms maintaining continuity between the characters’ backstories on several levels while also relying a lot on pop culture references of the time that most certainly lose their luster when you have to think about something such as, “Wait…who is Susan Anton?”. 

​One of the main writers of the later seasons of THE GOLDEN GIRLS was a man by the name of Marc Cherry, who would go on to create one of the biggest successes of primetime TV during the 2000s: DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES.

​As someone who has always had a guilty pleasure of the soap opera formula, I was intrigued by this show that was being marketed as a hybrid between shows like KNOTS LANDING, TWIN PEAKS, SEX & THE CITY, and the 1999 film AMERICAN BEAUTY. The man core of the show would begin with the suicide of a housewife and the downfall and mystery it causes in the neighborhood…which linked into the mystery stylings similar to the previously mentioned TWIN PEAKS as that series started around the question: Who Killed Laura Palmer?

​DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES was one of the rare TV series of that era that I was obsessed with, although in retrospect, I think I didn’t think of it or any of the network series on the same level as those produced by the premium cable channels, which at the time, most of the biggest successes came from HBO: THE SOPRANOS, OZ, SIX FEET UNDER, and THE WIRE to name a few. It also managed to feel unique in a way in that it continued the quirky genre hybrid form that shows like TWIN PEAKS or NORTHERN EXPOSURE perfected over a decade before.

​Even though the series competed in the Comedy/Musical categories at the Emmys and Golden Globes, it was certainly not in the same comedic boat of its then biggest rivals: THE OFFICE, WILL & GRACE, 30 ROCK, and ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT. 

​The first season of DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES was a huge critical and ratings success and was one of the key shows (along with LOST and later GREY’S ANATOMY) that helped bring ABC out of the ratings doldrums. A couple of years ago, I went back to rewatch the first season and while I still enjoyed it, I found myself not super invested having already known the secrets and the style of the series. Why did I feel this way? Why can I go back to watch shows like THE OFFICE or even TWIN PEAKS several times but my fandom for a show like this dimmed almost completely?

​DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES basically repeated itself over and over again. If it found a successful trope, it stuck with it relentlessly year after year. Before I go further with that, I will set up the cast of characters and their original arcs:

​Susan Meyer, played by Teri Hatcher, is a quirky clumsy divorcee raising a teenager daughter named Julie and she takes a liking to a new neighbor named Mike Delfino.

​Bree van de Kamp, played by Marcia Cross, is an uptight and conservative housewife who insists on perfection and it is now taking its toll on her husband Rex and their two teenaged kids: Andrew and Danielle.

​Lynette Scavo, played by Felicity Huffman, is a former corporate executive who ends up becoming a stay at home mom when she first becomes pregnant and the tally of kids has now increased to 4. Her husband frequently travels for work which leaves her constantly tending to the kids by herself.

​Gabrielle Solis, played by Eva Longoria, is a young former model who married for the wrong things and is shacking up with her teenaged gardener John.

​The series is set off by the suicide of their neighbor Mary Alice Young. When cleaning out her closet, the ladies discover a note she received that says: “I know what you did. It makes me sick. I am going to tell”…and the series and mystery is off and running.

​This post will become incredibly lengthy if I go into every little detail so I will to talk about this in the best way I can in describing what made the show become incredibly tiresome.

​After the first season, hype was immense for season 2 and the mystery of Mary Alice was solved (SPOILER ALERT: she and her husband agreed to take the child of a drug addict out of fear that she wasn’t worthy to take care of him; when she almost dies of a drug overdose, the Youngs…or the Forrests as they were known at the time, left town. The actual mother finds them a couple of years later after she sobered up and in a lapse of judgement, Mary Alice kills the mother and they bury her under their soon to be built swimming pool).

​Right off the bat, season 2 begins with two big events: the aftermath of the death of Bree’s husband Rex and the arrival of new neighbors (a black family): Betty Applewhite (AlfreWoodard) and her son…but they appear to have someone chained up in their basement. So, we basically see right off the bat that the show is going to be continuing the mystery angle and they are doing so in a questionable way. Betty Applewhite felt more separated from the other wives and it also felt weird that they were actually having a black family chaining someone up in their basement. It just seemed a little too cold.

​The show definitely suffered a sophomore slump that year, but it did manage to bounce back with the work/arc of Marcia Cross as Bree and also setting up an intriguing cliffhanger in which a new character Orson (played by Kyle MacLachlan) runs down Mike Delfino as he appears to be on his way to propose to Susan and then the next morning, he shows up at Bree’s seeming to be wooing her. You wonder what his motives are and it makes you intrigued for the next season even if it seems like they are setting up a mystery angle yet again.

​Season 3 is an improvement over season 2, but it also started a brand new gimmick that would end up plaguing the show more as it progressed: the November Sweeps Disaster Episode. A character played by Laurie Metcalf holds several customers at her husband’s grocery store hostage when she realizes he is having an affair and it puts the lives main characters Lynette, Julie, Edie, and recurring character Nora, in jeopardy and eventually causes the latter’s death. It is an episode that is very dark but also humorous at times and while some of the points it hits are very on the nose, it was a pretty successful episode…which therefore means, Marc Cherry never let the gimmick die. The biggest thing that saved Season 3 was Marcia Cross’ real-life pregnancy as she was directly connected to the season mystery via Orson. With Orson actually becoming a popular character, Cherry and his writers altered the mystery which made Orson a true villain and allowed him to remain and marry Bree…and then mid-season, with Cross about to give birth, they solve the mystery and allow Bree and Orson to go on a honeymoon. While they are gone, the show spends the remaining several episodes basically just existing and it worked splendidly well. They do try to throw in a mini-mystery (Karen McClusky has her dead husband in the freezer) that is a bit much and bombastic but it gets resolved in a couple of episodes but they focus more on neighborhood dynamics and it is smoother than when TWIN PEAKS first jumped off the Laura Palmer train.

​Season 4 introduces yet another nice housewife, but this one was actually a lady who lived in the neighborhood several years before and now she is coming back with a new husband and a teenage daughter in tow that a couple of the wives remember but the daughter Dylan doesn’t seem to. Is it due to age or something else? We also seem to have a very dark dynamic forming between this new housewife, Katherine and her new younger husband Adam. For November Sweeps this season, we got a tornado which destroyed the neighborhood and managed to kill a couple of recurring cast members to boot. One other thing saved this season too: the 2007 Writers Guild Strike, which reduced the season’s episodes down to around 17 episodes as opposed to 23. It forced the mystery to be wrapped up in a quicker pace without it becoming stale. Truthfully, it wasn’t that involved a mystery (Katherine’s daughter died in a freak accident as a young child and her mother convinced her that authorities would not believe her story so she adopted a girl who bore a striking resemblance to Dylan and posed her as the actual child) but thankfully, the actress (Dana Delaney) was great in the role and the show felt fairly nimble still with the season episode shortage. However, Marc Cherry felt like things needed to be shaken up so at the end of season 4, he introduces what will be a five year jump in the storylines.

​Season 5 begins with Mike and Susan being divorced due to their embattled grief in being involved in a major car accident that killed a young mother and child while Bree takes Orson back after he turns himself in from trying to kill Mike back in season 2 and he has served a brief sentence. We also have Edie Britt, played by Nicolette Sheridan, who was the neighborhood’s resident vixen and after leaving the neighborhood at the end of season 4, seeming to not plan a return, she DOES show up after the five year jump with a new husband in tow and they move into her old house…and her husband seems intent on revenge. 

This is where the show truly starts to go wrong.

​I remember reading online forums at the time and by the second episode, many people called the mystery by then: that Edie’s husband Dave is actually the man whose wife and child were accidentally killed in the crash by Susan and Mike. We also get yet another disaster episode that involves a fire at the pizzeria owned by Lynette’s husband Tom. One thing that does stand out with the season is the decision to kill of Edie Britt in the final third of the season, but it also sort of leaves us with less desire to even see what happens to Dave and his supposed revenge.

Season 6 is where the show lost me.

​The track record of mysterious people moving to this neighborhood is nothing short of astonishing. We have yet another new housewife (and yes, she is desperate), but she is a new breed: a tough talking Italian New Yorker played by Dreade Matteo, who had recently come off a fantastic and tragic run on THE SOPRANOS. While her demeanor is very blunt and off-putting to the series’ style at first, she does bring new life to the show…it is just too bad she has to be bogged down by a slow moving mystery that isn’t that complex so they try to stretch it out over several episodes. And once we get to the big DISASTER EPISODE, you are left wondering “What the hell happened to this show?” During a block party, a bickering couple with whom the show has never introduced before, are taking off on a flight in which they end up crashing their small plane right onto Wisteria Lane conveniently enough and killing off some characters like clockwork.

​I never returned to the series full-time after this. I did come back to watch the season 7 premiere with the debut of a character played by Vanessa Williams and I also returned for a few of the episodes in season 8 that revolved around the death of Mike and then the final episodes, but the series just lost its appeal for me.

​In many ways, DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES was a prime example of how plot-driven shows may be great at first glance but were just filled with gimmicks and cheap thrills in the grand scheme.

​The whole show was driven by the mysteries and the disasters and while certain characters did grow and change to some extent, everything felt driven by Cherry’s desire to be salacious and surprising the viewer at every turn.

​One story I remember hearing at the time just shortly after season 1 wrapped and received several Emmy nominations was that Marc Cherry was angry that the Globes or SAGs or Emmys chose not to nominate Eva Longoria. The truth is, she just simply wasn’t that remarkable in the part (she would eventually improve, especially in the comedic department) and her character was just fairly unlikable and not in a “love to hate” way…and she paled next to Teri Hatcher and especially Marcia Cross and Felicity Huffman.

​Marc Cherry was appalled at this occurrence and he said he would devise some scenes that would be written to showcase her and therefore give her baity material to submit for her Emmy consideration episodes. What occurred from this? Gabrielle is pregnant in early season 2 despite not wanting a child at first but for the sake of dramatic effect, she grows to want the child and ends up having an episode that involves her letting go of emotional grief, having a miscarriage, and then they end up adopting a child from a young mother who doesn’t want it…but then the true colors of Cherry’s debauchery rears its head. Towards the end of the second season, almost out of nowhere, the birth mother just decides that she wants the child back and basically just gives that as her reason. There isn’t any kind of emotional believability on the actress’ part and it just seems like a chance for the horror that is about to occur.

​Longoria is not exactly good at high drama, and it shows in this scene. This scene could’ve had the potential to be very powerful but you cringe at the line deliveries (“She’s our baby!” still rings in my mind and I went back to watch the clip on YouTube to see if my memory was faulty but it was still the same shriek I kept hearing in my head even though I hadn’t seen the moment in probably 10 years or more).

​DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES was a show about secrets hiding beneath the surface but the truth is that nearly everything about it was superficial. Is it still entertaining? Yes, I’d say there is enough of that left to it but I have found myself having little desire to even sit down to watch it again. The promotional materials often featured an apple motif and used words like “juicy”…it fit. The show was maybe too juicy for its own good; you get caught up in the tangy atmosphere and then after the experience is over, the high comes down and you aren’t really left with much of anything.

My Top 10 Favorite Musicals (Continued….)

As stated yesterday, I am now going to list my top 10 favorite musicals. If you missed yesterday’s post, I listed my favorites from #11-25. I just want to add again that I consider this list truly based on the word “favorite” rather than best. Some of my top choices, including my #1 choice, wouldn’t be my vote for the best musical ever written. In relation to that, I said that I was going to bring up another production as an honorable mention of sorts. That will be the 1935 opera PORGY & BESS. Some have classified it as a musical as well but I decided to leave it off this list. In his two books (Finishing the Hat & Look, I Made a Hat) that go over his career & his lyric writing, Sondheim often expresses his admiration for PORGY & BESS stating that the best lyrics he has ever seen came from this piece, particularly those credited to the man who wrote the original source material, DuBose Heyward. One could say that PORGY & BESS is incredibly problematic and that promotes offensive racial stereotypes…and that may be true to some extent, but this opera was incredibly important in that it gave many African-American singers a chance to perform in a legit dramatic show all on their own and they got to ACT as well as SING. Musically, they had perhaps the greatest modern composer of our time leading the way, George Gershwin. At its original four hour length, PORGY & BESS is a stunning piece that deals with death, drug addiction, rape, and disabilities…which certainly wasn’t overly appealing to audiences back when it premiered in 1935. There was a recent revival on Broadway that starred Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald that was fairly well received and even managed to win the Tony for Best Revival in a mild upset over the closed production of Sondheim’s FOLLIES. Sondheim himself basically criticized this PORGY revival as director Diane Paulus and her team trimmed pretty much HALF of the show out of the running time and yet still headlined it as “The Gershwins’ PORGY & BESS”. This production certainly wasn’t bad but a lot of the power was lost due to the streamlining of the material. Despite the original 4-hour length, PORGY & BESS might be the greatest piece of dramatic musical performance ever written.

And now, I give you my top 10!

#10-Gypsy (1959) Styne & Sondheim/Arthur Laurents

I almost feel like I HAD to include GYPSY. It seems to be the go-to answer when people talk about the greatest libretto ever written for a musical. That is probably true, at least based any of the musicals I’ve come across. For a story that spans the amount of time that it does, it is actually incredibly well structured and doesn’t feel long or dragged out. Laurent’s libretto gives many of the characters a chance to shine while also giving us the ultimate beast of a stage mother and quite possibly the greatest role for a woman in musical theatre: Rose. With a fantastic score with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Sondheim (because Ethel Merman was too afraid to take a chance on another young composer…thanks Ethel), the musical is certainly the pinnacle of the mid-20th Century musical era. All of the elements that were set in place by the R&H musicals and then tweaked by the likes of Cole Porter and Harold Arlen and their collaborators are in complete peak form here. Is there a more sought after female behemoth of a role than Rose? Some might come close but in terms of age range, it seems to be the King Lear of musical theatre and the ultimate role for a woman of a certain age…and understandably so. 

#9-Company (1970) Stephen Sondheim/George Furth

God peers through once again. Here’s a shocker for you…there was once a time where I wasn’t exactly the biggest fan of Sondheim. GASP! I know…I hope you can catch your breath from this abrupt and shocking news. That phase didn’t last long as I was pretty into his work by the time I was a senior in high school. However, the first musical of his that I loved pretty much instantly even though I am not sure why was COMPANY.In many ways, COMPANY is the first time we truly get to see Sondheim in the way that we all know Sondheim today. After only being a lyric writer and then writing scores for FORUM (which was very traditional in style) and ANYONE CAN WHISTLE (which sort of hinted at his future style), COMPANY was the birth of the full-out concept musical. There is no wonder it premiered with mixed reviews at the time despite its Tony success. It had a non-linear storyline, a leading man who wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted and couldn’t commit to anything and a score that is quirky and abstract and, at least based on the original production’s orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, sounded incredibly of its time. It may not be as a polished a score as Sondheim would often soon provide nor is the libretto often amazing (some of the scenes do get a little bit hokey dialogue wise), but the show is very ripe for interpretation as evidenced by John Doyle’s 2006 revival in which the cast played their own instruments in a very minimalist but elegant setting and the current West End production in which Bobby becomes a female Bobbie and some of the genders of the other characters have changed.

#8-Little Shop of Horrors (1982) Menken & Ashman/Howard Ashman

There aren’t many other artistic properties that I find absolutely amazing and very well done on so many levels while also having a lot of personal sentimentality mixed in for good measure. Continuing the trend of subject matter that is somewhat questionable for a musical, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is a prime example of a musical that manages to balance itself on a fine line between bad camp and good camp. It was based on a low-budget Roger Corman movie from 1960 about a very meek and awkward flower shop employee named Seymour who comes across a very bizarre plant that resembles a Venus Flytrap. This basic outline becomes the plot of a musical that was adapted by eventual Disney legends Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman. The final result is a musical that is amazingly sweet and hilarious and also seems surprisingly honest and human despite the ludicrous man-eating plant from Outer Space. The early 60s inspired score is phenomenal with Menken writing some of his catchiest melodies and Ashman, who also wrote the fantastic libretto, contributing some pretty strong lyrics. The roles of Seymour and Audrey are absolute showcases for anyone who has the honor of playing them while Mr. Mushnik and Orin Scrivello(especially if it’s a version where that actor gets to play all the other various characters that come through) are great roles for character actors. Also, you have the street urchin roles which showcase three (or four depending) lovely ladies who act as theGreek Chorus and get some killer vocals. The musical is also remarkable in that it doesn’t have a happy ending…everybody dies…and it is truly remarkable and tragic…but it almost just seems to be part of the fun. I am a former Seymour and getting to play the role was something I will always cherish and this is a musical that has a special place that many musicals don’t have.

#7-Fiddler on the Roof (1964) Bock & Harnick/Joseph Stein

Some have considered FIDDLER to be the proto-type for the “Concept musicals” that eventually became associated with Sondheim. I can see that logic to a degree, but FIDDLER is certainly more traditional at its core. In fact, “Tradition” is its whole point to begin with. In an opening number that perfectly introduces its themes and its characters and its setting, FIDDLER is shows right off the bat that it is a true masterwork and a force to be reckoned with. Led by Tevye, we get to peak into the lives of the residents of the village known as Anatevka. The archaic sensibility is that the women are paired with men in arranged marriages, often set up by Yente the Matchmaker. A lot of what FIDDLER first tackles his how Tevye ends up breaking the tradition by secretly allowing his two eldest daughters to marry whom they want rather than whom they were expected to marry. The show also gives us what may be the greatest “I Want” song in all of musical theatre: “If I Were a Rich Man” while also giving us a song that has since become played at many a wedding since: “Sunrise, Sunset”. It even sort of playfully takes a stab at the corny Dream Ballets that are often associated with R&H musicals by having Tevye tell his wife Golde a fake dream in order to convince her that their daughter Tzeitel shouldn’t marry Lazar Wolfe the butcher but rather the tailor, Motel. Everything about FIDDLER is basically a masterclass at how to tell a story in a musical, and even a song that is relatively bland like “Now I Have Everything” is at least relatively pleasant rather than downright bad. Even though I love a lot of musicals, sometimes I do often wonder if I would call a lot of them “masterpieces”…I don’t have to question that with FIDDLER, it is definitely among that list.

#6-Sunday in the Park with George (1984) Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine

He’s baaaaack…and fair warning; Sondheim makes another appearance after this! SUNDAY is often considered an important show when showing how an artist works, and while it literally involves art in terms of painting in this case, the same could be said for any artistic process. Sondheim himself has often talked about how working on SUNDAY was a very personal process for him and you can see a lot of this in the songs that focus on Seurat at work: “Color & Light”, “Finishing the Hat”, “Putting it Together”, and “Move On”. The main premise of the show revolves around real life Pointillist painterGeorges Seurat, but in a fictionalized story about how he came to paint his most famous piece: A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte. Sondheim was coaxed out of his planned retirement by James Lapine, who was primarily known only as an off-Broadway playwright who often directed his own work. They were inspired by this painting and created a story in which they brought all of the characters from the painting to life, including the most prominent figure as a love interest for Georges, whom they appropriately name Dot. While Act One takes place in 1884, Act Two takes place in 1984 in which the actor that played Georges now plays his grandson George who is also an artist whose work has both its fervent fans and vocal detractors. A lot of what makes SUNDAY stand out for me is the connection to the artistic process and how one views it and what you can take from it. The Act One finale called “Sunday” might be Sondheim’s most beautiful work and it never fails to send chills down my spine and can often cause me to get misty eyed, and it is thrilling to watch his painting come together. In the end, art isn’t easy. He says it as a repeated lyric during the famous song “Putting it Together”. It stood out to me in its blunt but simple simplicity and in such a way that it even became my OkCupid username and also, if you haven’t noticed, my blog name. SUNDAY definitely had a profound influence on me.

#5-Falsettos/The Marvin Trilogy (1979/1981/1990) William Finn/James Lapine

Marvin is an important character to musical theatre and to theatre in general. He was a leading character that was a homosexual…and he even gets a lover on top of it all. The Marvin Trilogy is based around three one-act musicals: IN TROUSERS, MARCH OF THE FALSETTOS, and FALSETTOLAND. The latter two were combined (along with one song from IN TROUSERS) to make a production on Broadway called FALSETTOS which opened in 1992. The main premise is Marvin recently divorced his wife Trina in order to be with his younger and rather aloof lover Whizzer. This ends up causing a lot of strain on Trina and their young preteen son Jason. Things become even more bizarre when Marvin’s therapist, who ends up treating Jason as well, falls for Trina and they end up getting married. The Act Two portion (which is FALSETTOLAND) adds in two lesbian lovers, which was a first at the time and is still rarely ever seen on Broadway, aside from FUN HOME; planning for Jason’s bar mitzvah; finding love again after Marvin and Whizzer originally split up; and then the discovery that Whizzer has AIDS. While there had been plays such as THE NORMAL HEART or AS IS that discussed the AIDS crisis, Finn & Lapine were the first to musicalize it and it works surprisingly well emotionally without seeming cloying or over the top. It has its moments of humor while also being incredibly heartbreaking. For what it deals with and in the way they deal with it (primarily sung through almost like a modern pop opera), FALSETTOS is a truly lovely and important work.

#4-Cabaret (1966) Kander & Ebb/Joe Masteroff

The 1960s were a fascinating time for the arts. While American cinema was relatively floundering in the early 60s and television was fairly saccharine as well, the theatre was the place where most art was truly adult, and even then, there were some boundaries. I feel like CABARET was the first show to truly bust open those boundaries with his grime and sleaze and rather sinister and cynical tone. Based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel GOODBYE TO BERLIN which then became the play I AM A CAMERA, I feel CABARET was the next major stepping stone in being able to show audience’s what could be done in a musical and that it could be successful. You have a very wild leading lady by the name of Sally Bowles, who is a drinker and a partier that regularly sings at the sleazy Kit Kat Club and a rather sinister narrator of sorts that is that Master of Ceremonies at the Kit Kat Club. The musical takes a darker turn as the Nazis (certainly not the kind you’d see in THE PRODUCERS) begin to take power and then we get the piece de resistance: the titular song in which Sally sings at the club about how we all need to enjoy life but it is sung with darker subtext: she is pregnant and she doesn’t want the baby…and by the end of the song, it is conveyed that she has decided to have an abortion. While it isn’t said explicitly due to censorship of the times, it is still a very dark turn for a musical to take but it is done extremely well. Many of the Kander & Ebb staples are born within this show in such a way that this, along with the very similar in tone CHICAGO, are so identified with them that many often forget they wrote more traditional works too such as CURTAINS and WOMAN OF THE YEAR and FLORA THE RED MENACE…not to mention the iconic “Theme from New York, New York”. The musical eventually became a film in 1972 which surprisingly was great in its own right even though it eliminated the characters of Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz and smaller subplots (a rare example of a movie still working immensely well even on different terms from its source material) and it managed to win 8 Oscars and was the last truly great film musical until LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS was released in 1986 and then when the genre made a full comeback with their own CHICAGO in 2002. CABARET was also my favorite musical at one point and I still obviously highly admire it for what it achieved and how they made it work.

#3-Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979) Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler

I might be entertained by some of his other musicals more but in terms of pure scope and content and how well Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler made it work, SWEENEY TODD gets my selection as my favorite Sondheim musical. The 2007 movie version by Tim Burton was fine on its own terms and introduced the story to modern audiences plus THE OFFICE did a whole episode where Ed Helms’ character Andy is cast as Anthony in a regional production. SWEENEY TODD has become another musical that was received with polarizing results at the time but had enough support and clout to win Best Musical. It legendarily had a good half of its audience leave at intermission at its first performance. Why? Well, I guess people weren’t accustomed to a show about two crazy individuals who are about to start killing people and putting them into meat pies. Yes, murder and cannibalism are the theme du jour in SWEENEY TODD and it makes for true gothic horror but also darkly comedic and sadistic hilarity at times. Sweeney Todd is actually our lead character’s alias; his actual name is Benjamin Barker. He was sentenced on a trumped up charge by the jealous and evil Judge Turpin who sought to have Barker’s wife and daughter for his bidding. It is believed that his wife Lucy is now dead while his daughter Johanna is the ward of the Judge. He learns this from Mrs. Lovett, a rather abrasive pie shop owner who almost instantly confesses her attraction towards Barker/Todd. Todd’s quest for revenge and Lovett’s lack of customers and good food supply lead them to killing people to service the pie shop. Due to not wanting to have novels as blog posts (and I feel like I already did that with my last posting yesterday), I am often vague on the synopses of a lot of these musicals so please forgive me. I feel like in the case of some show, like this one, I am doing a disservice with describing them. The last thing I will say about SWEENEY is that it has an opening number that sets the eerie tone so perfectly, and by the time you get to the finale, you are almost baffled by how much you laughed and how frightened you also were.

#2-She Loves Me (1963) Bock & Harnick/Joe Masteroff

The romantic comedy is a genre that can be cliché-ridden and hopelessly sappy, but when they are done well, they can be absolutely delightful. After a lot of darker themed musicals on this list, it might be surprising that a fluffy musical ranks this high but I firmly believe that SHE LOVES ME is the finest of the fluffiest, whipped creamy musicals we could possibly get. Its source material, a Hungarian play called PARFUMERIE, has been adapted several times as movies such as THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER, IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME, and most famously, YOU’VE GOT MAIL. In the case of SHE LOVES ME, it sticks with the original setting of a Hungarian Parfumerie in 1934. It revolves around a series of clerks and their boss throughout a good portion of the year, particularly Georg Novack and Amalia Balish, who despise each other. What they don’t know is that they are secretly pen-pals who share a lot of common interests and pretty soon a date is planned…but a series of events complicate things. There are also subplots involving the boss, Mr. Maraczeck finding out his wife is having an affair with who he assumes is Georg at first but turns out to be another clerk, the cad Mr. Kodaly, who also tries wooing another clerk, Ilona. We also have the bumbling middle-aged Lladislov and the youthful energetic Arpad rounding out the team. Those who know the story from YOU’VE GOT MAIL will get the basic idea, but in many ways, the show does follow a lot of similar romantic comedy tropes. Why do I love it so much then? A lot of it is the setting, the particular characters, the libretto is humorous and charming, and the score is absolutely beautiful and witty and breezy. SHE LOVES ME is one of those musicals where I usually find the most people adore it that knows it; only rarely have I ever met anyone that disliked it. The worst I have heard is that some find it boring or just typical and predictable. Maybe I sort of get that, but I also feel too engrained in my love to fully understand it. If there was ever a musical that truly leaves me feeling so happy and enchanted and ready to walk on air after seeing it or listening to the score, without a doubt, SHE LOVES ME will always win.

#1-Ragtime (1998) Ahrens & Flaherty/Terrence McNally

Anti-climatic much? How many times have I talked about RAGTIME and how much I love it? A thousand times on Facebook doesn’t seem like too much of an exaggeration. There are certain things about RAGTIME that I do find problematic, such as certain lyrics:

“We’ll go down south (go down south)

And see your people (see my folks)

Won’t they take to him

Like cats to cream

-WHEELS OF A DREAM

There is also the tendency of Stephen Flaherty to write songs that all end with a big flashy long note or Terrence McNally’s libretto getting a little preachy or heavy-handed in Act Two, but despite these issues, RAGTIME has always been a show that I have a strong affection for and that I find to be incredibly powerful and extremely well done; when it works, it works on a magnificent level. The source material was E.L. Doctorow’s sprawling 1975 novel which also became a fairly good though not as faithful film in 1981. Set at the turn of the 20th century, it focuses on three particular people of three different groups: Mother, a wealthy white woman in New Rochelle, NY; Tateh, a Latvian immigrant coming to America with his young daughter; and Colehouse, a black pianist from Harlem who is longing to find his lover Sarah. While there stories are all drastically different, we watch as the narrative leads them all to cross paths. In a similar trope that I feel like could be more known to others as a “Forrest Gump” gimmick, is this material features many celebrities and historical figures of that era crossing through the lives of those in the material. Many people questioned if RAGTIME could work on stage due to the amount of story and characters that were in the original novel. While certain plot points and characters are shafted or nixed, it is actually impressive how well the opening prologue achieves in setting up the scene and the characters. RAGTIME is a sentimental favorite as it was the first Broadway show I ever saw but I also feel the production was stunning based primarily on the cast which was led by the late Marin Mazzie as Mother; Peter Friedman as Tateh; Brian Stokes Mitchell as Colehouse; Audra McDonald as Sarah; Mark Jacoby as Father; Steven Sutcliffe as Younger Brother; Judy Kaye as Emma Goldman; and Lynette Perry as Evelyn Nesbitt. When the show opened, it was put into the brand new and massively large Ford Center for the Performing Arts, which is now called The Lyric Theatre. The show managed to sell remarkably well in that massive space but due to that size and the scope of the set and large ensemble, the show closed after two years without ever recouping. A lot of that also was due to the scheming accounting techniques of the infamous impresario/producer Garth Drabinsky. Many suspected it would become the American version of LES MISERABLES…and in a way, it definitely is that based strictly on the scope of the material (and it is better in my opinion). As I mentioned before, this list is based more around personal favorites rather than BEST. If this were a BEST list, RAGTIME would probably remain though not as high; it has enough fantastic merits to warrant it but I do feel other shows were better either libretto or lyric wise. I still can’t help but love this musical though. It began a journey in many ways for me and I still go back to listen to it often.

So, that’s my list! Hopefully you enjoyed reading it. If you have anything to say, please feel free to comment below. 

Thank you!

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