Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Friday, August 22, 2008

New York Fringe Festival

I've been to seven or eight events at this year's New York Fringe Festival, and I have to say I'm disappointed: either this year's 200+ efforts are not up to the last two or three years', or I'm picking them wrong. Monologues about one's life are interesting as, say, bar conversations (with me allowed to insert comments and tell stories too), but they are not inherently theatrical, and people have to get over the idea that just because you have a degree in acting and experiences to share makes them so. A show called "I Hamas" was full of interesting reportage on being Palestinian in California and going to Ramallah to connect with one's roots and being sorry one has achieved this, but it wasn't theater.

Burlesque is back, with a vengeance (what needed to be avenged? the lost honor of Baby June?) but also a difference: in the old days, burlesque meant scantily clad young (or not so young, but buxom) women saying (or depicting) set-ups and sly or vulgar guys hitting out with obvious or ancient punch lines; today burlesque means scantily (or not even) clad young men saying set-ups, while the vulgar punch lines come from the women (or drag queens). I'm the last man to object to eye-rolling, barely clad, well-built young men (in "Box Office Poison," "One Seat in the Shade," "The Boy in the Basement," et al.) - or at least the last man to object to them so far - but except in the last-named play, the situations were so trite, the jokes so antique (was there a line in "Box Office Poison" that wasn't forty years old, utterly filthy, or both?) that I did not need to stifle my laughter - it wasn't there to be stifled.

"The Grecian Formula" had some excellent actors and a lot of in-jokes for those familiar with ancient Greek theater and history ("odes" in badly rhymed doggerel verse recited between segments of plot, e.g.), but did not sustain interest enough to lure me back from intermission. (The title is about the level of the humor - no, it's rather better than most of the humor.)

Yesternight I attended a genuinely good play, but then it was Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," with a woman in the title role. (No, that part didn't work, but everyone spoke Shakespeare well, which gives me pleasure.) The most fascinating thing about that (aside from the charming idea of having soothsayer's warnings, rumors, chorus lines, etc. muttered in loud whisper from all around the room in the dark - and the one laugh-line, when Cassius says, "It's my birthday") was a previously unsuspected nonprofit performance space in a ruinous gothic public school building on Suffolk Street near the Williamsburg Bridge. (Everyone around me in the audience lived in Boerum Hill or Prospect Heights, which figures. Only old farts like me can afford Manhattan.)

But after Brutus had finally got splooged in his fatigues, I allowed myself to be lured by a friend to "The Boy in the Basement." It was an 11:45pm show, the theater is in back of my house in the South Village, and several of the women involved were members of an improv troupe whose ongoing skits were the pinnacle and glory of last year's Fringe - notably the mordant wisecracking Lynne Rosenberg. The premise was: an excessively melodramatic young fellow (with a female pen name) is writing soft-core gothic porn (what Jane Austen would be writing, anyway texting, if she were, like, alive and horny and 22 and in college today) with a quill no less at one corner of the stage, driving himself to erotic satisfaction, while stage center four college roommates (a vixen, a virgin, a slut and a new age wack) have discovered a slim, hunky burglar in the basement. Of course they don't want to turn him in - since he's only stealing to help his sister get an operation - (what sort of operation is she running? was my question, never answered) - but each of the maidens has her way with him (or vice-versa as he turns every sort of table), as he lies chained at their mercy (showing very little inclination to escape, how unrealistic). The playwright (Katharine Heller, doubling as the vixen) proceeded to toy with our expectations as if arousing us fed some kind of urge on her (or the entire company's) part. Nick Fondulis toyed with our more prosaic expectations as the surrogate author. Tom Macy toyed with ... well he could if he wanted to, I'm sure. Lynne Rosenberg didn't have enough to do; I'd love to hear her talk about Palestinian Rights or tell bad old dirty jokes with her flawless timing. Meghan Powe and Anna Stumpf were also funny; Michael Solis was also cute. Souls were almost the only thing not bared. (Tom did try to suck on Meghan's virginal toe. He can have mine for the stomping. I'll even wash it first.)

There was a happy ending, which is to say, I was tempted to return, and voted it Best in the Fest. There is one further show at 10 on Saturday night.

Larry Hart in my dreams

Last night, in my dreams, I was in a cafe and in walked Lorenz Hart, most superb of New York song lyricists, the poet laureate of "Manhattan," "Blue Moon," "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," "This Can't Be Love," "Falling in Love with Love," "My Funny Valentine," "Where or When," "The Lady is a Tramp," "It Never Entered My Mind," "Ten Cents a Dance," "There's A Small Hotel" - well, where does one stop? (I've stopped after ten - I could easily name, no, sing fifty more.)

Not only was he present, he was in a terrific mood ("because anything is more fun than being dead, to be frank"), and full of perceptions about musical theater (his favorite show since his demise in 1944 was, surprisingly, Frank Loesser's "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" - he didn't mention Richard Rodgers at all). We had cocktails and shot the breeze and admired the waiter's rear end, and he sang me some of his lesser-known ditties (all previously unknown to me, and full of elegant - and somehow coyly homoerotic suggestive rhymes - I wish I'd written them down), and we talked about my grandmother whom (it turns out) he knew slightly - they both had crushes on the same singing cowboy radio star - whose name I also forget at the moment. And just as she (my grandmother) was about to join us for a nightcap - it turned into a morning cap.

Well, it's good to know he's having a better time in the afterlife than he did in this one. Don't you agree?

Anyway: Happy Bosworth Day (Richard III killed in battle, 1485).

Saturday, August 16, 2008

As Time Goes By (the opera)

What the world needs now, I hope you will agree, is a brand new Verdi opera, and the principal reason we don’t have one is that Verdi died in 1901. But the secondary reason (I feel) is that there has not been a libretto worthy of Verdi’s steel for even longer than that. And as I riffle through dramatic properties of the last few generations, certain screenplays leap out at me and say: THIS would be a great Verdi opera! Vertigo is one. Forbidden Planet is another. But the overwhelming cinch for first place, and I have taken the liberty of “opera-izing” it, is:

Come il tempo passa, ossia la Casablanca

Libretto in two acts

Act I
The curtain rises on Rick’s, the snazziest nightclub-casino in French Morocco. It is 1941. The Americans aren’t in the war yet, but Rick [baritone – Simon Keenlyside, who does tormented so well] is an American. His constant companion and best draw is pianist Sam [tenor – Anthony Dean Griffey for colorblind casting].
Chorus: Tutto il mondo viene a Rick. (Everybody comes to Rick's)
Ugarte [baritone – Richard Paul Fink], a European of doubtful reputation, sneaks up to the crazy Russian bartender, Sasha [baritone – Mariusz Kwiecien], hoping to see Rick. Sasha is vague as to Rick’s whereabouts, and Ugarte slinks off. Sasha flirts with Yvonne [mezzo - Denyce Graves], a chanteuse, but she sneers at him.
Enter Louis Renault, Casablanca’s corrupt police chief. [alto – I see this as a trouser role – Alice Coote or Beth Clayton – but it could also be sung by David Daniels.] Louis is showing the new German “military observer” around the local hotspots. The Germans have no authority in Morocco, but the French have to be cautious around the masters of Vichy. [Major Strasser, tenor – Kurt Streit.] He asks about Rick, whose anti-fascist history he knows; Louis remarks “If I were a woman, I would be very much in love with Rick.” But he’s ogling a refugee’s young wife even as he sings.
Rick joins Strasser and Louis for dialogue sung over riffs from Sam’s piano. “Perche vieni a Casablanca?” “Pelle acque.” “Ma, Casablanca acque non ha! E deserto!” “Ho misinformato.” He excuses himself when he spots Ugarte in the shadows, and while Sam leads a rousing jazz number, learns that Ugarte has murdered a German spy and stolen two letters of transit, good for anyone who carries them to flee the country. He begs Rick to hold onto them while he packs. Rick reluctantly agrees.
While Rick is out hiding the papers, Major Strasser begins to chat up Yvonne. To Sasha’s chagrin, she flirts with Strasser. Quartet (with Louis’s cynical comments).
Enter Laszlo (bass – Rene Pape) and his lovely companion, Ilsa (soprano – Renee Fleming would kill for this role, but Anna Netrebko would project sensuality). While he chats with like-minded exiles, Ilsa turns to Sam. “Giocale, Sam.” “Non capisco che voi parlante, madamigella.” “Gioca ‘Come il tempo passa.’ Dee-di-de-di-de-di….” Relucantly, Sam plays the tune … only to be interrupted by a furious Rick. “Lo dici giammai giocale quell’ canzone, Sam!” “Dessa la riquiesta.” “Chi?” He turns. “Salute, Rick,” Ilsa says. (Orchestra plays minor key version – ominously,) She introduces him to Laszlo.
Their brittle trio is interrupted by gunshots and screams: a man has been slain just outside the door of the casino. Louis hurries out … and returns with the news that Ugarte has been shot fleeing from cops because he has violated curfew. Strasser triumphantly proclaims that Ugarte was a refugee – and that he’d stolen two letters of transit. His entourage (a barbershop quartet of Axis officers) usurp Sam’s piano and sing the Horst Wessel Song. In response, Laszlo leads the band, Sasha and even Yvonne in the Marseillaise. They drown out the Germans and Yvonne falls into Sasha’s arms. (Comic duettino if there's time.)
Strasser, in recit, commands Louis to close Rick’s. He’s no happier to learn that Ugarte did not have the letters of transit on his body. Louis closes Rick’s on the grounds that gambling takes place on the premises, commencing (“Son stupefatto, stupefatto”) a stretta in which all the characters comment on the precarious situation. The curtain falls.

Act II, scene 1
Rick, in his room, drinks and broods on Ilsa’s betrayal (Aria: “Abbiamo avere Parigi”). Louis comes in, hoping to learn if he has the letters of transit, warning that Major Strasser will be furious if Laszlo gets away. Then Ilsa arrives. She explains she secretly married Laszlo before she met Rick, that he escaped from a concentration camp but refuses to flee without her. Extradition by the Nazis is only days, maybe hours, away. She offers herself to Rick if he’ll give her the letters of transit – they’ll trick Laszlo into getting on the plane to Lisbon alone.
Grand duet (over an ever more chromaticized As Time Goes By):
“Hai scordatemi, Rick …?”
“Scordarti? Tu? Parigi? Giammai. Tu (wore) blu … i tedeschi (wore) gray …”
“Son con Laszlo … il grande guerrier della liberta. Devi noi aita …”
“No. Mi partiti; in tempo, tu lo partirai.”
He resists, denounces her treachery, refuses to believe her – but does believe her. She falls into his arms as the curtain descends.

Act II, scene 2
At the airport, Laszlo (with a chorus of pilots) sings a brindisi about being drunk on libert√°. When Ilsa shows up, she says Rick will bring the letters of transit, and the two of them sing of the future they fly to – while Ilsa, aside, wonders what’s taking Rick so long.
Rick comes in with the papers – but Louis has followed him. Rick pulls a gun on him, urging Laszlo to catch the plane as quickly as possible. “E mia moglie?” “Anch’ella.” “Ma Rick –?” she whispers, as Laszlo turns toward the runway. Rick snarls: “Le probleme di tre piccoli uomini n’accontono a una colline di fagioli,” launching a trio in waltz time (with Laszlo) that becomes a quartet (with Louis).
Laszlo and Ilsa begin a slow march towards the plane; tension builds as the propellers rev (depicted by drum rolls). A jeep drives up, Strasser at the wheel. “Laszlo dov'√©?” he demands. Louis nods at Rick, who still has him covered. Strasser, furiously, seizes the phone and demands to be connected to the conning tower. Rick, after warning him to put it down, shoots him dead. (Crashing descending arpeggio from the strings.)
The plane takes off, just as Strasser’s German quartet drives up. “What has happened?” they demand. (Crashing arpeggio.)
Louis responds in cold, precise, official tones (over an ironic echo of Strasser’s leitmotif): “Il colonello e … assassinato … Ritrovate i sospetti usuali.”
As the Germans drive off in frustration, Rick gazes fondly at his new companion-in-arms: “Louis – penso ch’e la commincia d’una bellissima amicizia.”
Crashing arpeggio segues into “As Time Goes By,” concluding with a dash of Marseillaise.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

To the New York Review of Books

On the back of the fourth renewal notice since March, this time pleading with me to explain why I was not renewing my subscription:

Dear NYR of Books,

I love the NYReview - but it piles up. It piles up. I live in a small apt., like a Collyer brother of yore. Things fall apart. The closet cannot hold. Ask me what I like to do in bed: read, edit, watch opera DVDs, eat meals, exercise, plot, plotz.

I read slow. I hate to throw things out. I dropped The New Yorker and all the glossies because they fall off the bed onto the floor and are slippery there and that's dangerous for a bachelor. I didn't get the New Yorker on disk, though tempted, because ... who has the time? I read slow.

I love to take NYR on trips and read them on insomniac nights, intending to leave them behind one by one across Italy or Turkey or British Columbia - but I always seem to bring them home with me anyway. One last article I didn't get to. Y'know? And they pile up.

I love Tony Judt. And Tim Ash. And William Pfaff and Charles Rosen and Paul Krugman and Andre Aciman and Orhan Pamuk and Alison Lurie and Charles Simic and Daniel Mendelsohn. But ...

Spent Feb to May finally getting through back issues 2005-2008. I'm almost back to 2004. Pretty good, eh? If new ones kept arriving, I'd never have made it. Threw out 20-30. Saving the odd article, clipped, put inside books or into a special notebook. But they pile up.

It piles up. And it's on line (bless you - and the TLS - and the London Review - and The New Yorker - and The Nation - and Foreign Affairs). And if I want to read an article that you have not put up on line (the one on the myths inspired by Alexander the Great, e.g.), it is in your table of contents and the public library is five blocks up Seventh Avenue.

So there you have it. The most pretentious words I ever read were Gertrude Stein's (inexact quote, read it 30 years ago): "Gertrude Stein feared that one day she would have read all the books she wanted to read, but in time she realized that this would not happen."

Never mind writing them, too, which I am trying to do.


John Yohalem

P.S. Fonds to Tony Judt. And Bill Pfaff and Tim Ash and Charles Rosen