Monday, June 11, 2012

The Tony Awards 2012: The Rough With the Smooth

In Gypsy, the redoubtable Rose Hovick explains her philosophy as "Like the good Lord says, you've gotta to take the rough with the smooth, baby." Those words definitely sum up my feelings while watching the 2012 Tony Awards broadcast.

There was certainly more than enough "rough" to go around. Broadway continues to drift away from the kind of integrated, well-crafted musicals I love, churning out an increasingly soulless crop of new shows that mistake sentimentality for true sentiment, and noise for genuine excitement.  What else could explain the Tony audience's wild cheers for the feckless gymnastics of Newsies, the half-hearted recycling of Nice Work If You Can Get It, the banality of Ghost, or the dramatic vacuity of Once? The number which the producers of Once chose to represent their show looked like part of a rather dreary pop concert, and had no discernible story to tell. Seeing so many Tony Awards go to this mediocrity, affirming the ongoing decline of the beloved art form whose history I teach, was rough indeed.

Happily, there was a generous amount of "smooth" to help the medicine go down. It was sweet indeed to see the divine Audra McDonald win her fifth Tony, and to see the gifted British actor (and former History Boys star) James Cordern take home his first. No one could fail to be charmed by the obvious affection between Hugh Jackman and his wife (although, if Hugh really loves the lady all that much, wouldn't he hire a gay consultant to help her pick some decent shoes?) And while Neil Patrick Harris could not quite eclipse memories of his hilarious opening number last year, he yet again managed to enliven the proceedings and keep them by far the most entertaining awards show on television.

And for me, there was a special joy in seeing Nic Rouleau, one of my recent students at NYU Steinhardt, who just took over the lead in The Book of Mormon, kick-off the Tony broadcast as he and the male ensemble performed the delightful "Hello!" And another talented alumni of my classroom, Melanie Field, was seen kicking up her heels in the ensemble of Evita.

I tell my students that it is my fervent hope to some day drive my friends to distraction during the Tony telecast by repeatedly saying, "There's one of my kids!"  It was a tremendous delight to have this wish come true for the first time, in a double dose  -- and even better, to know this is only the first of many times to come.

So, although the Broadway musical may be in a dark time, my students are taking their place in it's present and -- better yet -- its future. Like the good Lord says, you gotta take the rough with the smooth, baby!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Herman Cain, Bigot

So Herman Cain is the latest one to publicly say that homosexuality is a choice?  It's bad enough when people use their so-called religion as an excuse for their ignorance and bigotry, but this is a presidential candidate, and one who is leading in the polls for the Republican nomination.

So just for the record, Mr. Cain, your bigotry is particularly ugly coming from an African American. I no more chose to be a homosexual than you chose to be black. You have a duty as a public figure to encourage understanding and foster responsible discussion.  By pouring fresh fuel on a viewpoint long since negated by science and psychology, you mark yourself as a bigot, and therefore not worthy of consideration for any political office.

Go back to selling pizza, Mr. Cain -- and who knows, maybe one day you'll find out how many of the toadies you surround yourself with got more of a kick out of kissing you butt than you realized.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

By Your Pupils You'll Be Taught

Like a great many other people, I was amazed at a story on the front page of The New York Times about a community college class where an adjunct professor refuses to accept questions from a student with a speech impediment -- supposedly because the educator finds the young man's stutter "disruptive." While I do not want to judge anyone unseen, I must confess that if there is any truth in this story, then the teacher in question is losing out -- and may need to consider other professional options.

I am currently an adjunct at three universities, and in all my years of teaching (for the record, I first taught at the elementary level exactly 30 years ago), as well in all of my hundreds of public lectures, I have always welcomed questions. Hell, I love 'em! Far from being disruptive, questions are proof that people are not only listening, but that they actually give a damn about what I have said. Questions from students and audience members often lead me to consider aspects of a subject that I might not get to on my own, and make the learning process dynamic and interactive, as it it ideally should be

More than six decades ago, Oscar Hammerstein II, that much-loved poet of the American musical, wrote in one of his lyrics for The King and I, "when you become a teacher, by your pupils you'll be taught."  In my years of teaching, I have relished the wisdom my students and listeners have led me to with their questions and comments, constantly helping me to stretch, to grow, and to see familiar things anew. No matter how thick the accent or how challenging the impediment, I have relished every question.  And in the fifteen years has been on line, I have answered literally thousands of email inquiries, and consider myself genuinely enriched by the process. Even when I cannot provide someone with an answer, I can often point the way to other sources -- and that too is a joyous thing to do.

So to all my past, present and future students, listeners, and readers: please know that questions are always welcomed by yours truly. I consider it an honor and pleasure to help when I can, and consider myself incredibly blessed to receive so much in the process. The more you ask, the more I learn.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Call To Arms!

At a time when rock music and torrents of obscenity are flooding the musical stage and screen, I for one have had enough. So sit back, kids -- here goes . . .

I am a showtune chauvinist, and proud of it! According to one dictionary definition, a chauvinist is “a person with a fanatical belief in the superiority of his or her own kind.” Well, I am most definitely not a male chauvinist, but I sure as hell am a showtune chauvinist. I have a fanatical belief in the inherent superiority of showtunes to any other form of music, and it is high time that I and my kind came out of our cast recording-packed closets.

For years, I have been telling friends and students who marvel at my gleeful ignorance of contemporary music that I am the last of the showtune chauvinists. In the days of George M. Cohan or Irving Berlin, there were many who openly espoused the glory of showtunes. Now, we are getting harder to find -- or so certain nefarious people would like us to think. The fact that Broadway musicals are a multi-billion dollar industry suggests that there are still a fair number of us surviving in this hip-hop and techno-crap infused world. But the last decade been a particularly tough one for our breed. Anyone who hints at a passion for tuneful musicals is treated like a cultural pariah, and with Broadway increasingly providing a home for bad rock concerts with plots, lame adaptations of hit films, and lyrics that once belonged exclusively in prison yards, there has been little for my kind to celebrate.

For the last few years, I was so depressed by the state of musical theatre that I found myself posting fewer essays and reviews on Musicals101. Well, to hell with that! As of now, I am taking up a new position as a militant voice for showtune lovers, and and this blog will offer an ongoing call to reclaim pride in musicals, and in the rich legacy of melody, humor and sheer pleasure this endangered art form has given the world. I’d rather be ridiculed for speaking the truth than sit silent one moment longer. For example? Anyone who thinks Lady GagMe (that noisome, greasy creature) has anything resembling talent has my sympathies. While many of Irving Berlin's best songs remain treasured favorites decades after his death, I am willing to bet that Lady GagMe's best work (a contradiction in terms) will be forgotten as soon as the next slimy sensation knocks her off the charts.

I find it offensive that those who should champion the musical theatre so often apologize for its existence. Many theatre critics cheer for third-rate rock musicals (oh, the raves they piled on the appalling American Idiot) while lambasting any show that dares to offer a hint of melody or wit. Mosh-pit aerobics have garnered awards for theatrical choreography. And in a final act of self-denigration, the Tony Awards – the one nationally televised event dedicated to the theatre – go out of their way each year to say, “Yeah, we may be Broadway, but don’t worry, we don’t look or sound like Broadway any more.” Like musicals have to be ashamed of looking and sounding like musicals?

And by the by, who the heck thought it made sense for the toilet-mouthed comedian Chris Rush to give the Tony for Best Musical? If he really thinks that announcing the winner of that coveted trophy was really "just like taking a hooker to dinner" (his words, not mine), he would have done well to let someone who gives a damn do the honors. Oh wait, perhaps using Rush was a twisted way to pay added homage to the verbal filth that pollutes The Book of Mormon. Many who should know better are hailing that opus as a new hope for the musical theatre (how often have we heard that claim made for over-rated trash?), but I for one am disgusted to see so many awards going to a musical featuring songs that I cannot quote at length on this family-friendly site. The Book of Mormon is so packed with mega-obscenities that most schools and community theatres will never be able to present it. To my mind, that is a tragic development. That kind of wild, pubescent vulgarity may be funny for a moment -- but it will soon pall.

So the war is now on! Purveyors of ugly hard rock musicals, recycled film plots and other forms of entertainment evil, beware! Enemies of Jerry Herman, en guarde! Spewers of gratuitous vulgarity in place of humor and mere affinities in place of true rhymes, crawl back into your sewers and "Hasa Diga" yourselves! (Yes, Parker, Lopez & Stone, I mean YOU!) Starting today, The Showtune Chauvinist is on duty and calling the faithful to oppose you -- and he’s drawing a bull’s-eye on your nasty, tune-less, foul mouthed, joy-killing butts.

And all good citizens who love musicals, take heart! You are no longer alone -- in fact, you never really were. Celebrate your favorite musicals, play your cast recordings, whistle great showtunes whenever you can, and may the force of Rodgers & Hammerstein (as well as Porter, Sondheim, the Gershwins, Lerner & Loewe and the other musical greats) be with you!

Friday, March 25, 2011

On Elizabeth Taylor and Being TOO Gay

Every now and then I find myself asking, am I too gay?

If you just asked whether such a thing really exists, the answer is “Hell, yes!” Haven't you seen those over-the-top gents flouncing about on The Jerry Springer Show in pointlessly tight clothing, wrists akimbo, stretching the letter “s” to perilous lengths, and, to borrow a phrase from an old showtune, “flaming with all the glow of sunrise?”

Granted, I am not that sort of head-turning caricature, but I enjoy indulging in a bit of camp as much as the next gay man. (Some cozy night by the fire, I may regale you with tales of how I once won donned full drag to host a talent show while impersonating Joan Rivers, sans facial reconstruction. Yup, I admit – I am that gay.) My proverbial Lavender Elite Card has been stamped “active member” for more than three decades, and because I authored, I am even immortalized in the charming book How the Homosexuals Saved Civilization (if you don’t believe me, look it up – I’m in there). So it is only natural that I occasionally find myself wondering if I have finally stumbled a few steps beyond the boundary between gay and (Oh Mary, don't ask) too gay.

Such was the case the other day when I heard about the death of Elizabeth Taylor. While others were recalling her various films, marriages, tragedies, friendships and philanthropies, I have the sneaking suspicion that I may have been the only person on earth whose first reaction was to recall her as a song lyric. In the hilarious off-Broadway revue Whoop-Dee-Doo!, someone impersonating an effusive fan warbled the refrain, “I love you Elizabeth Taylor-Hilton-Wilding Todd-Fisher-Burton-Burton-Warner . . . -Fortensky,” openly hoping that Liz would remember his bid, since (in the wake of her marriage to the much younger Larry Fortensky) she was apparently “into romance with a kid.”

Remembering someone’s full name because it was in a lyric? If that doesn’t prove I’m too gay, then what (short of writing the song in question) would? Hell, I haven’t felt that gay since I led a contingent in the New York Pride Parade while singing showtunes on a bullhorn. (Hey, you have go a long way to be one of the homos who saved civilization!)

My warped mind then turned to the two screen musicals Taylor appeared in. She got her start as a child actress at MGM, where every performer under contract had to be willing to appear in musicals. Four years after winning international stardom in National Velvet, Taylor was seen synching her lips to someone else’s voice in A Date With Judy (1948), ostensibly crooning “It’s a Most Unusual Day.”

Unfortunately, three decades later, Taylor sang for herself in the screen version of A Little Night Music (1977). Although gorgeous and dramatically effective as Desiree, her singing was one of the film’s chief liabilities. Unanimously dismissive reviews made the film a “must miss.” Attending the film’s opening day in Manhattan, I was one of only eleven people in a rather large theatre.

Did you know that Taylor almost filmed yet another Sondheim musical? In the late 1970s, there were plans to produce an all-star screen version of Follies, with the divine Liz playing Phyllis, a role originated on Broadway by Alexis Smith. Imagine the oft-divorced Taylor tackling “Could I Leave You?” For better or worse, plans for this project never jelled.

I saw Taylor on Broadway twice; first in a brilliant revival of The Little Foxes and then in a decidedly less-brilliant revival of Private Lives – which nevertheless provided a priceless moment when Richard Burton took his then ex-wife in his arms and uttered Noel Coward’s glorious line, “Deep down in my deepest heart, I want you back again.” (I’ll never forget the way that audience gasped!) Like millions of others, I treasure her searing performance as Martha in the film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Taylor set aside any hint of her vaunted Hollywood glamour, turning herself into a coarse, braying uber-bitch. It led to her winning the Academy Award – her second – and rarely has the honor been so richly deserved.

In recent weeks, as Taylor's health worsened, it was rather sad to see the slimier supermarket tabloids gleefully competing to dig up the most ghoulish available photos of her. So when death finally came, there was a special satisfaction when the front page of every legitimate newspaper emblazoned with breathtaking photos from her glory years. To the end, Elizabeth Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Burton Warner Fortensky was one of a kind, and it is fair to say that her extraordinary presence made this planet a slightly more interesting and endurable place for the rest of us.

And if saying that makes me too gay, then light the candles, get the ice out and roll the rug up. (Ye gods, another showtune . . .)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Rubberneckers - Don't Call Them Theatre-goers

Last week, while commuting to a course I teach at Philadelphia's University of the Arts, the bus I was on got stuck in a snails-pace traffic jam on the New Jersey Turnpike. After thirty minutes, we came upon the cause of the snarl, a dump truck loaded with scrap metal which had overturned on the opposite side of the highway. Despite some rather scary looking piles of twisted steel, no one appeared to be injured. The debris and the people dealing with it were all on the other side of the road. The only things slowing us down were those moronic drivers who had to stop and gawk. One of my fellow bus passengers grumbled, "Hell, there isn't any blood over there. Why bother slowing down?"

Perhaps it is in our human nature to crave a look at disaster, so long as it is someone else's. That certainly explains why the media continues to focus on the spectacular public implosion of Charlie Sheen, even though many, including myself, have long since stopped giving a rat's extremity about this superannuated Brat Pack wanna-be (I am old enough to point out that his far more talented and attractive brother Emilio was a legitimate Pack member, and had the good sense to grow up.) This morning, the network news shows put off reporting on such trifles as our two wars in the Mideast or the deadly rebellion in Libya, and instead lead off with footage of Sheen looking like an embattled dictator facing rebellion as he wildly waved a machete on the roof of a Los Angeles hotel and vowed vengeance on the studio executives who just (and justly) fired him from his obscenely overpaid role on Two and a Half Men. It seems that, no matter how low this pathetic man goes, the media (and a depressingly large percentage of the public) will remain glued to his every misstep, nurturing the hope that they will get be watching live when Sheen's boundless megalomania comes to some kind of a bloody climax.

This obsession with rubbernecking would explains why people continue to fork over small fortunes to see Spiderman Turn Off the Dark. Aside from having a hilariously clunky title, this so-called musical has left two cast members seriously injured, over a hundred thousand ticket buyers poorly entertained, and every critic in New York howling that the show is a disaster. The New York Times (which has a sad propensity of late to praise ghastly musicals) went so far as to describe Spiderman as "one of the worst musicals in history." Now, word has it that the show's producers are planning more rewrites, necessitating yet another postponement of their frequently delayed opening night. Despite all this, according to, Spiderman filled 85% of its seats last week, pulling in a whopping $1.28 million at the box office, a figure only outdone by one Broadway competitor, the long-running Wicked.

At this point, no one can seriously claim that they are attending Spiderman in hopes of seeing a good show, or even a passable "work in progress." Millions of people who routinely ignore Broadway are now quite aware that this so-called show is a $65 million (and by now that official figure must have ballooned to one far higher) mega-flop. So I suggest the press stop referring to anyone attending Spiderman as "theatre-goers." Call them what they are -- rubberneckers, dimwitted thrill-seekers hoping to witness the next bloody accident. Its not about the story or even about the songs; its about watching a disaster in the making, with the added forbidden hope that one may get to see another performer meet a painful, perhaps even blood-soaked fate.

Considering the number of people who are currently making a living by providing coverage of the devolution of Charlie Sheen, I daresay the producers of Spiderman may find enough paying rubberneckers dumb enough to cover at least part of their ill-advised investment.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Blogging Again: Once More, With Feeling

After a rather long break, I am resuming the Musicals101 blog. The reason for the time off was simple, if not downright clich├ęd: yours truly spent the last two years going through his midlife crisis. Dumped by my longtime companion of 20-plus years, and beset by a resulting swarm of financial and emotional challenges, I found it impossible to create new posts. (To those who wrote in, my sincere thanks for your kind concern – it was reassuring to know so many people cared.) It was all I could do to maintain and continue a reduced lecture schedule. Lecturing is one of the sustaining joys of my life, and the talks I gave over these past two years were a constant source of motivation and emotional renewal.

As 2011 dawns, I am happy to report that life is much brighter. On a personal note, I now am in a new and very rewarding relationship. Professionally, I am getting busier. Along with the course I teach at NYU’s Steinhardt School each spring, I am now offering a year-long course at the Brind School, part of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. I am also offering several talks for members of the National Council of Jewish Women NY Section, and a course on “Musicals as History” for the Five Towns Senior Center’s adult education program in Hewlett, NY. And I continue a longstanding series of afternoon talks for the Golden Age Club at the Jewish Center of Kew Gardens Hills.

Along with these, I am continuing my multi-media “Theatre Chat” series at New York’s Sutton Place Synagogue on Sunday, Feb. 27th with a 1:30 PM talk entitled “Screen to Stage: When Films Become Broadway Musicals.” There was a time when critics and ticket buyers were hostile to movies adapted for the stage . . . now it is rare to find a new musical that is not based on a hit film. What changed, and why? With Sister Act, Catch Me If You Can and Priscilla Queen of the Desert coming to Broadway, this is certainly a timely topic, and you can count on me to pull no punches in discussing the best and worst musicals to come from this ongoing trend. (Admission for the general public is $10; for reservations or further information, call 212-593-3300).

Speaking of “pulling no punches,” you can expect the same from me in this blog. My goal is to post new articles here on a weekly basis, offering my take on events in musical theatre and other topics of interest. So please stop by regularly, and I’ll do my best to make it worth the effort. You may not always agree with what I have to say, but odds are you won’t be bored. I’m ready to make new friends, and even to risk making some new enemies . . . and that’s as good a definition of “being alive” as any I can think of.

Now what’s this I hear about Beyonce doing a remake of A Star is Born? Won’t it be fun to stick with Garland's glorious version on DVD and stay away from this new cinematic abortion . . .

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