Monday, December 31, 2007

A cup of kindness

Edited for saccharine...

Madame Melba sings for you a sentimental song, to usher in the new year. [I swear, that syntax totally works if you imagine, like, the Voices of Firestone theme in the background.]

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Now that you're near

Oh shit. Here it is, that holiday I always forget the name of, and me without a thing to post about. Only post I will, as post I must. It is a point of pride around here, as you know.

Well I can write a little something about Xanadu, I suppose, having taken in that very spectacle with my sister. That's how the D'Annato family says "Happy Birthday, Jesus! You don't look a day over 2,000!"--by standing in line at TKTS. It is as if to say: see? We suffer, too.

There's no reason to convince you folks that you should or should not see Xanadu. I think more than any play in Broadway history, you pretty much know from the name, the poster, and the crowd lined up in front of the theater whether this is going to be your cup of merde or not. Although actually, my sister went in thinking they had just settled for staging the unvarnished affront to a first grade education that is Xanadu, the movie. And so was taken aback to find that those responsible have chosen to parody what is already parody.

The main question is whether you've seen the movie, and even that doesn't help entirely. Sure, it makes sense, or perhaps I should dust off the scare quotes and say "sense" of a few details like the streamers they all pull out at the end of "I'm Alive." But I think it is also possible to feel a tiny bit sad for Olivia Newton-John while you're watching the hilarious, disarming Kerry Butler making sport of the world's least self-conscious performance of anything, ever. I mean, isn't that why Xanadu is somewhat beloved camp instead of completely unwatchable crap, because of its infinite sincerity?

I can tell you that if, long about 1980, you were a seven-year-old who was just beginning, in the depths of his latency-stage soul, to wonder if maybe possibly you were actually....Olivia Newton-John, some of this is actually unironically life-affirming. Yes, you now think I'm either kidding or mildly retarded, and that's fine. But I know when I beheld the scene where poor Gene Kelly's character is reminiscing about the 40's and Sonny is talking about that rad new 80's music, and an imaginary Andrews Sisters type ensemble gets aesthetically smooshed together with the very worst of what I believe was called New Wave, saw it taking place in the flesh in front of me, it was like I relived those ten minutes or so when I didn't mind being 8 again. That scene, as I may have said, is the Ariadne auf Naxos of movie musicals on rollerskates.

The part you've probably heard most about is, say, can you have a subplot when the plot itself is already rather sub-everything? Well I mean the added characters played by Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman, and they are indeed hilarious, I think not so much because their lines are great but because they're just very funny people--the genius of their use here is about context more than material. Jackie Hoffman's very being seems to scream out "are you kidding me with this shit?"

But, also too--as I used to hear people in the midwest begin their sentences, shortly before I beat them to death with a style manual--there is low-key genius in the performances of Kerry Butler and the inhumanly attractive Cheyenne Jackson. Srsly, I went in ready to hate him because he is the embodiment of phenotypal unfairness in the universe, but he gives this completely goofy performance that exonerates him for looking like everything you ever hated about The Big Cup. (Hey did you ever see how there were actual I-kid-you-not candles burning in front of that place after it closed? Some friends and I stumbled upon that little funeral and I coudn't stop myself from muttering "e avanti a lui, tremava tutta Chelsea" to nobody's particular delight.)

And Kerry Butler, yeah, was like a big beacon radiating fun as Clio/Kira, the role mortalized by ONJ in the Ur-Xanadu. Once in a while she privileged humor over singing in a tiresome way in songs that I really do think are rather fine exemplars of their era, but until ELO does one of these "back from the nursing home" tours everyone else is doing, I guess I am alone in taking them semi-seriously anyway. Ms. Butler has lots of things to commend her: she's a New Yorker, she has very good comic timing and a solid set of pipes, and she never looks like she's going to crash into the orchestra pit.

Xanadu is playing at the Helen Hayes maybe for a while longer. Or forever. I keep getting them mixed up. Get me with the actual Xanadu quotes, huh? Guys like me shouldn't blog!

Next up: good question. I keep saying War & Peace and I keep not going.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Dial M

This blog is new to me via The Rest is Noise, but it looks like fun, especially if you're a musicologist groupie, and I just know I'm not the only one. Hey, aren't crickets more of a summer thing?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Upstate Julie Brown (a blogospheric term of art--what did MTV do when they had two Julie Browns?) is insisting I listen to Judy's concert at Carnegie Hall, because apparently sitting up nights wondering what Leider sounded like in person makes me not-quite-gay-enough. I will make every attempt to spare you my musings as I embark upon this potentially crippling new fandom.

It's true, I'm not going to very much in December. December's a bit of a lull. I'm certainly interested in seeing War and...That Other Thing and maybe even a Ballo but December has a way of making me hide under the bed. Forgive the de facto hiatus.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

If I had a dime for each (I'd still have a lot of student loans)

I think I got my actual 100,000th hit sometime back, but way back when I changed the name of the blog, I couldn't figure out how to do it without sitemeter the kinda-sorta 100,000th visitor to My Favorite Intermissions is somebody in Ridgefield, NJ that clicked over my way about 8:30 this sunny morning. I would have thrown confetti or something, dear citizen of Ridgefield, but I was still asleep.

Saturday, December 08, 2007


Of course there's no real way for me to write about August: Osage County because I feel a (somewhat spurious) personal connection to the thing. I have a mostly visual memory of being at Tracy Letts' 13th birthday party in Durant, Oklahoma--I would have been five--and picking out a firecracker for someone of age to set off. No, he wouldn't know me from Adam, but I had fond, vague memories of his folks, Billie (a novelist) & Dennis, who has what amounts to a one-aria role--lovingly and lyrically delivered--in his son's sprawling, grandiose, wonderful play. He's the kind of person that makes you, despite everything, miss the South. So there's a substantial misting of sentiment on the lens.

After the play, I stood outside the stage door, feeling a tiny bit like Eve Harrington, and because I am apparently still five years old, muttered "Mr. Letts" when Dennis walked out. As we stood in the cold, surprised to know each other so many years later, someone I can tell you about more objectively walked out, kissed him on the cheek, and went on her way. That would be Amy Morton, one of under ten things I miss about Chicago.* Ms. Morton is, on the basis of what I've seen, as riveting an actress as they make, and I've never been at any of her birthday parties. In the impossible opening monologue of Homebody:Kabul she spoke for an hour and then vanished, haunting the rest of the play.

Here, in August, as Barbara Weston, she is asked to make a long, grueling transformation whose finality is announced at the end of the second act by one of the most shattering curtain lines I have ever witnessed. She delivers it with the kind of terror and truth you associate with Silja at the end of Jenufa's second act ("Jako by sem smrt nacuhovala!") It took several minutes to stop ringing in my ears. The role contains notes of cruelty, despair, love, and a hundred other things; whether they're reined in to realistically fit in one digestible character by Ms. Morton's art or Mr. Letts' vision, I cannot say.

The second act is the strongest; at other times during the play it's possible to regard what you're taking in as extraordinarily polished southern gothic. Isherwood, in the Times, said as much: the raw materials here are those of pulp genres, and in fact the single moment in over three hours that struck me as a misstep was the one that most self-consciously tried to escape this genre, strove most seriously for bigness, the final moment of the play. Up to that moment, though--a sentimental one in its way--the younger Letts strikes the damndest balance between the essential sympathy for his creations without which no play is very worth watching and a merciless black humor founded on genuinely unsettling, existential skepticism. (Without that, black humor is a teenager's bravado and nothing more.)

Even when the play succeeds mostly as wickedness, it's a sort of miracle of pacing and of ensemble. The playwright knows when to let a joke go on far too long (if you've seen anything more uncomfortably funny than the scene where they say grace recently, email me) and when to make everything happen at once. The latter happens as fluidly as it does, I think, in part thanks to a game and agile director, but also very much because things like that happen when you have actors who really feel each other's rhythms. It's kind of a shame Broadway doesn't have an ensemble like Steppenwolf, where that phenomenon is the bedrock everything rests upon.

Morton, then, is prima inter pares, sharing the spotlight with the likes of Deanna Dunagan, in many ways the star, who goes for broke as Violet, the matriarch and the undoing of the Weston family. She's given some tough material and sails through it, funny as she is dreadful. Dunagan provides no footholds for understanding Violet; to do so would ring false with everything else going on. Instead she barrels through the role, and if you're with her, you're with her, and if not, well, at least she's not real, because you wouldn't want to be on her bad side. Jeff Perry plays husband and foil to Morton's Barbara, the two of them portraying a marriage in the last stages of distress. It's great to watch them shift responsibility for their demise as a couple, suggesting at many times that culpability where two people are concerned is neither stable nor proportional. On balance, Barbara is about 40% to blame; her husband, about 75%. There are plenty of dark suggestions here about how likely any two people are to make it, often made palatable with a devastatingly funny riposte.

Letts picks interesting targets, not all of them safe. The moment I'm hearing most reactions to is a lethal smackdown directed at "the greatest generation." I of course will reveal nothing. He also doesn't exempt kids from his withering gaze, making good use of Madeleine Martin, who you may see occasionally in your nightmares if you took in The Pillow Man (by Martin MacDonough, who cites Letts' earlier, more physically violent plays as an inspiration, I read). Martin now plays an understandably creepy wreck of a teenager.

A certain type of New Yorker will get a kick out of knowing the role of Johnna is played by Jerry's girlfriend in the "Indian giver" episode of Seinfeld. Probably something she's trying to escape, but I couldn't help bringing it up. Her role is the only one that gives me pause. There's an element of the "magical negro" in a native American variant in her final moments, but enough has been given to her earlier that it's not a serious failing.

The show has no serious failing. Even the design strikes this often visually obtuse viewer as somehow simultaneously expansive and efficient, evocative of a place and what it has come to mean, being there.

This is a limited run, folkses, and after the Times review, I imagine despite the fate of musicless plays on Broadway, you may need to get while the getting's good.

*the others are: about four friends, Margie's Candies in Bucktown, blond boys of Nordic heritage who never give me a second look, and Harold's Fried Chicken.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Hang on a few while this pretends it's about Tristan. It's not really.

Almost everyone learns the same lesson the first time he or she hears Tristan und Isolde, at least supposing the listener in question is a fanatic of the voice and not, say, a Furtwangler nut who's listened to every possible recording of it seven times through. The listener I'm imagining, who was me, hearing Tristan for the first time has heard pieces, and most especially the Love-Frog, as we have taken to calling it, the Love-Frog over and over and over. It's a fine thing to know and of course stands on its own as a piece of heavenliness, but what you learn later on is that it is in fact even more exquisite if you've just listened to all of Tristan und Isolde. It's a lesson about water and thirst, not to say that the rest of the opera is a lack of something, but if you know what the crowning moment is, you'll be thinking of it throughout. Won't you? And, unless you are a Wagner fanatic of the first rank, there really are moments of Tristan that it's tough to get absorbed in, and in those moments especially, you might think, "could someone sing just a few phrases of the Liebestod, please?"

This is a little like what happens with Einstein on the Beach unless I'm totally wrong and it's not that typical to have heard the closing monologue long before ever hearing the other 3-5 hours of music. My friend the classical guitarist in college who introduced me with contagious enthusiasm to many things ranging from pot to Perotin to the Pixies once said (and maybe he was stoned) you have to listen to the end of Einstein on the Beach, because it's so great, and then he recited a little of it in a creaky old-man voice that made me assume Einstein was actually a character in the opera. And I had heard this and that in high school--my friend M. and his friend M. would act out one of the Songs from Liquid Days--but there is something sweet and instantly memorable about that last scene with its text. It gives you very little flavor of the rest of the work if it's what you've heard first, because it makes narrative sense, and is concise, but there it sits at the end, like the Love Frog, and it's even better if you've just been through a lot.

Saying it that way makes Einstein sound like an ordeal, and it sort of is. Maybe I'm speaking here for the listener still somewhat ambivalent about much avant-garde music (and yes, E on the B is thirty years old and it's only minimalism and etc etc etc but it's a challenge, verily.) Jonathan says that in the most positive way, there are parts of this piece that make you want to scream. I can't disagree. It's sensory overload, and for me the only way to enjoy it is to go in having written yourself a permission slip to let your mind wander as it will. Unlike Tristan, E/B has moments that you simply cannot process: the text is solfege syllables, going by at a rapid clip to changing rhythms, and the most you can do is register it unless perhaps you're my other concert-going companion A, but I'd venture to say most of us aren't. Hell, in fact all of us aren't, except A.

I'd like to think of this kind of listening not as inattention but as the psychoanalytic concept of floating consciousness or, as one analyst has it, listening with the third ear. You will almost inevitably go in and out, especially if you're seeing it in concert without any Robert Wilsoning going on in the background, and some of the sonic assault may in fact be difficult, unpleasant. You can't not hear it, and perhaps it will resonate in your head as any number of things including fear and distaste, which are a valid response to art as well, and do not mean the art is bad. And when, as floating consciousness implies, you tune finely back in, it may be on a moment of textual revelation or sonic splendor. I'm not guaranteeing anything, but it might.

So was for me, at times, as in Tim Fain's solo in the "knee play" section: precise, elegant, alarming on the simplest level of "how does he keep count", and with a core of emotion and dynamic nuance you may or may not associate with this kind of music. At other times, I read my program notes, more than once over. Mrs. Dalloway remained closed, at my side, though at times I wondered what the reasonable limit might be on my decision to drift in and out of music deliberately devoid of obvious footholds. What is the difference between thinking about your day while the tedious dancing gypsy scene in Traviata goes by and cracking a book at Einstein on the Beach, especially in the age of mechanical reproduction of music, some of us listening to Penderecki on the treadmill?*

Lucinda Childs (whose name I almost typed as "Lucinda Williams" and kept mentally confusing with minor 90's pop chanteuse Toni Childs during the performance) was on hand to deliver what the program note described, I believe, as her famous reading of the "Prematurely air-conditioned supermarket" monologue, and indeed it was something to behold. I'm told by A, who knows more about these things, that it's kind of crazy and wonderful of her to show up to do this as she is, as confirmed by her program bio, busy elsewhere being Really Important. The "lovers on a park bench" monologue I started talking about back before the Rhine overflowed was delivered by Melvin van Peebles, who is a little bit mumblier than whoever does it on the old recording, but speaks with poetry in his voice, so it was fine.

It's tough to comment on the rest. This is obviously not an opera review. I'm not sure it's a review at all, and I'm not sure it's an opera. Most things seemed to go musically very right, and it was another fun evening with Event Buzz in the air. It was also pointed out by those present that, given E/B's busy performance schedule on the order of once every fifteen years, we may have witnessed the last performance led by its creator, which is a large thought to get in one's ear, a responsibility almost.

*not me, not bragging here. I hate exercise and am not sure about Penderecki.

Next up: Iphigenie! Unless I decide to write about the play I'm going to tonight.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The danger of a good night out

See now I'm thinking what Wadsworth and his team ought to be doing once they're permanent fixtures at the Met, which surely they will be. And the perverse thing I keep landing on is La Vestale. Cuz here's the thing: Gluck is at best riveting if not religious, and at worst, a little dull. Even in the hands of someone whose musical intelligence is pretty much universally acknowledged (I'm talking about Mark Morris, of course) things can go pretty wrong, and you're stuck in a living, breathing version of what, er, normal people think opera is like, an airless pageant of artifice and pretense. Mr. Wadsworth is the enemy of that kind of aesthetic death, if the current production is fair evidence of his work. So I say sic him on the things that feel lost to the accreted dust of changing taste. No, for once, I don't have a Giulia in mind, nor a Licinia, nor a Cinna, not at all. It's just a formless idea.


Did you guys read this article? I am posting after having read 1/4 of it because it's so fascinating and irritating.* I'm of course tickled to see that Wellsung has again influenced the Lexicon (viz: Trebs) but also look: Peter Gelb either reads the blogs or has someone do it and tell him about it. At least it sounds that way, since the Peanut Gallery @ Parterre is the place you're most likely to hear charges of "Gelb likes the lookers." Ok maybe I'll go finish the article now. Small pedantic point from the metaphor police aimed at I'm not sure whom: kvass can't be gooey.

Here's something Trebs says later in the article that ought to piss plenty of people off:

There are so many young singers he’s given opportunities to — big roles at a young age, which never happens in America. They have what they call the young artists’ programs, but what they’re really doing is putting singers in their graves. They’re sitting there in the big theaters wasting their best years, studying, covering, looking at the big stars. It’s so wrong. You can never learn to sing if you are just watching.

I am charmed by the fact that she talks about needing to work on coloratura. How I do go up and down with AN. Fortunately, the up is mostly when I'm actually watching her.

*irritating that it refers to bloggers as catty about thrice and trots out some stuff like the business about the Greek soprano...