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Look, I Made a Hat

January 5, 2012 Leave a comment

Two Halloweens ago, I wrote about the new book Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes by Stephen Sondheim, which that day was the featured cover review (by Paul Simon) in the Sunday NYT. A week later, Joe Nocera wrote about the book in the NYT arts section, prompting me to buy it, and to write about it once again.

In November, the successor appeared: Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981-2011) with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany. (Yes, you can now buy a boxed set, with the name Hat Box: The Collected Lyrics of Stephen Sondheim.) When I saw Charles Isherwood’s daily NYT review in early December, I didn’t order it. Instead, I added it to my Amazon wish list. A week later, Brad Leithauser reviewed it in the Sunday NYT and I still didn’t order it. I was patient. A week later, on Christmas, it arrived. Santa had gotten the message. (Thanks, Jessica.)

I took my first close look only last night. It’s hard to read without having recordings of all the shows at hand, and without playing them as you study the lyrics. But putting the lyrics aside, there’s so much else to marvel at, from the photos to the lists of original casts to, especially, Sondheim’s accounts of how shows came into being, why songs got moved, what logic lies behind the rhymes. I’ve barely scratched the surface.

And before I knew it, I had turned back to the first volume, with its own treasures. I was singing along to “Pretty Lady” from Pacific Overtures; reading Sondheim’s blast of famed theater critic John Lahr’s Harper’s piece on him and Sweeney Todd on the grounds that Lahr “had merely read an early rehearsal script, although he didn’t indicate that to the reader;” and then moving on to Sweeney Todd‘s “Pretty Women.”

The new book begins with Sunday in the Park with George. I’ve explained before that it’s been “our musical” since our honeymoon, when we saw it on Broadway while staying at my (then-recently-dead) grandmother’s apartment a mile north. So many great songs. Last night, I read the lyrics of “The Day Off (Dog Song),” which is sung by George as he sketches Spot, the Boatman’s dog —

If the head was smaller …
If the tail were longer …
If he faced the water …
If the paws were hidden …
If the neck was darker …
If the back was curved …
More like the parasol …

(Humming)

Bumbum bum bumbumbum
Bumbum bum …

— and soon I was humming along, with Mandy Patinkin’s voice in my head.

Bumbum bum bumbumbum
Bumbum bum …

More shade …
More tail …
More grass! …
Would you like some more grass?
Mmmm …

Ruff! Ruff!

Categories: Books, Theater

Move On

March 12, 2011 Leave a comment

A couple of weeks ago, New York Magazine announced that Frank Rich would be joining them in June.

Rich will be an essayist for the magazine, writing monthly on politics and culture, and will serve as an editor-at-large, editing a special monthly section anchored by his essay. He will also be a commentator on nymag.com, engaging in regular dialogues on the news of the week.

For those of us who have been reading Rich at the NYT for decades — first as chief drama critic, then as an op-ed columnist — the news of his departure was a shock. In fact, my Rich reading days go back to my arrival at college years earlier. He was two years ahead of me and a bigwig at The Crimson.

Rich’s farewell column appears in tomorrow’s NYT. I was reading it online earlier this evening with moderate interest until I reached the closing paragraph, which took me by happy surprise.

You will recall that I am a huge Stephen Sondheim fan, and that Sunday in the Park with George is “our” musical — the musical Gail and I saw on Broadway when we passed through New York as one stop on our extended honeymoon and whose music has moved us ever since. Having reminded you of that, I’ll now quote Rich’s final NYT words:

Of all the things I’ve done at The Times, there may be none I’m prouder of than, in my critic’s days, championing “Sunday in the Park with George,” Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s 1984 musical about two artists in two different eras restless to create something new. For a quarter-century now, the show’s climactic song has inspired countless people in all walks of life when the time has come to take a leap. “Stop worrying where you’re going,” the Sondheim lyric goes. “Move on.”

You will find below, courtesy of youtube, Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin singing the song during the original Broadway run of the show. And at top, their reprise 25 years later at Sondheim’s 80th birthday concert. Both versions are glorious. Together they provide an excellent primer on the change the years bring — in appearance, in voice, in interpretation.

Categories: Journalism, Theater

Next to Normal

March 6, 2011 Leave a comment

[Craig Shwartz]

We saw the touring production of the musical Next to Normal last night at the 5th Avenue Theatre. We got a mailing for it last month and when Gail tried to recycle the card, I pulled it out, saying maybe we should go. I then pinned the card to the bulletin board and proceeded to do nothing. But Gail went ahead and bought tickets to give me as my birthday present last week, by which point I couldn’t remember why seeing Next to Normal was so urgent.

We started the evening with dinner across the street at Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery — Gail and me, Jessica and Joel. Convenient, but nothing special. I did like my beer. Then we arrived at the theater well ahead of time and took our seats once they opened the door at 7:30, giving us plenty of time to review the playbill.

That’s when the disappointment began, with the small slips of paper inserted that announced which actors would be replaced by which understudies. No Alice Ripley! Winner of the 2009 Tony for leading actress in a musical, creator of the musical’s central role. I suppose that’s what happens when there are matinees and evening performances on Saturdays and Sundays through the run, but I felt cheated.

I didn’t feel too good, either, when I looked up above the stage at the collection of speakers, the sort that they used to have hanging at the Kingdome before it was blown up, the sort that grace every indoor sports arena. I understand that the days of musicals with unmiked performers are long over, but this didn’t look promising.

And sure enough, much of the singing during the show would be better described as shouting, the better to be heard over the amplified instruments. During many of the more climactic moments, especially when several actors would be singing at once and the music would reach a crescendo, the actors would shout in unison, and while one could hear each of their voices, one couldn’t discern what words were wailed.

Not to complain. The show held my interest. I particularly enjoyed the set and the lighting. As for the story, which centers on the travails of a bipolar, schizophrenic woman and her family (I dare not say more, as the plot holds a few surprises), my one reservation was that it seemed to treat the therapists and their medicines as a source of humor, without exploring the relevant issues in any depth or providing illumination. There’s a story to be told, not that the musical has any obligation to tell that story. Indeed, today’s NYT has a piece, Talk Doesn’t Pay, So Psychiatry Turns Instead to Drug Therapy, that is very much to the point:

Medicine is rapidly changing in the United States from a cottage industry to one dominated by large hospital groups and corporations, but the new efficiencies can be accompanied by a telling loss of intimacy between doctors and patients. And no specialty has suffered this loss more profoundly than psychiatry.

Trained as a traditional psychiatrist at Michael Reese Hospital, a sprawling Chicago medical center that has since closed, Dr. Levin, 68, first established a private practice in 1972, when talk therapy was in its heyday.

Then, like many psychiatrists, he treated 50 to 60 patients in once- or twice-weekly talk-therapy sessions of 45 minutes each. Now, like many of his peers, he treats 1,200 people in mostly 15-minute visits for prescription adjustments that are sometimes months apart. Then, he knew his patients’ inner lives better than he knew his wife’s; now, he often cannot remember their names. Then, his goal was to help his patients become happy and fulfilled; now, it is just to keep them functional.

Actually, as I re-read the passage, I see that the musical does, in effect, tell this very story. My objection, perhaps, has more to do with how facilely it’s told. Nonetheless, the musical does grapple with these issues, as it depicts the sufferings and occasional successes of the family. I’m happy to have seen it.

For a more enthusiastic view, I turn you over to NYT lead theater critic Ben Brantley. He wrote about the musical’s Off-Broadway incarnation in 2008. A year later, when it opened on Broadway, he was overwhelmed:

No show on Broadway right now makes as direct a grab for the heart — or wrings it as thoroughly — as “Next to Normal” does. This brave, breathtaking musical, which opened Wednesday night at the Booth Theater, focuses squarely on the pain that cripples the members of a suburban family, and never for a minute does it let you escape the anguish at the core of their lives.

“Next to Normal” does not, in other words, qualify as your standard feel-good musical. Instead this portrait of a manic-depressive mother and the people she loves and damages is something much more: a feel-everything musical, which asks you, with operatic force, to discover the liberation in knowing where it hurts.

For the retooled version, first seen at the Arena Stage in Washington in November, they made the decision to toughen up and to cast off the last traces of cuteness. This meant never releasing the audience from the captivity of its characters’ minds. That decision has transformed a small, stumbling musical curiosity into a work of muscular grace and power.

Categories: Theater

Finishing the Hat

November 11, 2010 Leave a comment

I had a post two Sundays ago about Paul Simon’s NYT review that day of Stephen Sondheim’s new book Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. Much as I love Sondheim, I wasn’t prompted to buy the book. This past Sunday, NYT business columnist Joe Nocera had a piece about the book in the arts section.

It turns out that Nocera is a Sondheim fanatic.

When I fall for something, I fall hard. Yet I don’t think I’ve ever fallen as hard for anything as I did for Mr. Sondheim’s music. His songs and shows became central to my life, insinuating themselves into my heart and mind. I’m a business writer, but I’d often find myself, in the middle of trying to write a tough-minded article, haunted by some Sondheim song that I couldn’t get out of my head.

Nocera writes movingly about what Sondheim has meant to him, and about what he learned from the book.

The discordant experience of listening to him while reading him made me think hard, in a way I hadn’t before, about why I found his songs so affecting. Why did his best songs make me cry?

My assumption had always been that Mr. Sondheim’s skills as a composer were the root cause. Back when I was first learning about him, I was stunned to discover that the songs in some of his early shows like “Company” (1970) were originally viewed by some critics as “cold.” To me his music seems the opposite of cold; his melodies have always seemed warm and inviting, while his harmonies have invariably stuck with me. I know nothing about music theory, but I do know that great composers use certain chords and rhythms and harmonies to evoke sadness or joy or melancholy. I suspect that if Mr. Sondheim were to write a book about his music, rather than his lyrics, he would explain just as clinically how he creates mood with harmony.

But reading “Finishing the Hat” made me realize that my assumption had been way too blithe; it was a way of letting myself off the hook. What I had long admired about Mr. Sondheim’s lyrics — what everyone admires, really — was their sheer gleaming intelligence. But what I had been missing — and what I could see, at last, on the page, as I listened to his songs — was their wealth of emotion, and how often they directly spoke to me.

On reading Nocera, I hesitated no longer. I ordered the book last weekend and it came yesterday. No revelations of my own yet. I’m just getting started. But after paging through the Sweeney Todd chapter last night and noticing the multiple appearances of the song Johanna, I couldn’t get its melody out of my head the rest of the night. And the photos are great.

Categories: Books, Music, Theater

Simon on Sondheim

October 31, 2010 Leave a comment

Even if you’re not a fan of Stephen Sondheim (and I know some aren’t, but I don’t understand how that’s possible), you may enjoy today’s NYT review of his new book Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. It’s the Sunday featured review, for which the editors called on Paul Simon. I read it, and write this, as I listen to the cast album from the Broadway revue Sondheim on Sondheim.

I just love the photo above of Sondheim at the piano in the mid-1930s, drawn from the book and reprinted in the NYT review. Speaking of which, here’s a review excerpt:

“Company,” one of my favorite Sondheim musicals, is often cited as another example of his cerebral, cold writing. The plot is a bitter examination of the “joy” of marriage and the existential loneliness of its unmarried protagonist, Bobby. Some have speculated that Bobby is an auto biographical stand-in for Sondheim, although he dismisses this as the trap of attributing the character of the art to the character of the artist. It’s harder to read autobiography into the words of a composer who writes for theater than it is for a pop music counterpart. A song from “the heart” of a character has to be truthful, but if it isn’t, it’s not the author’s lie — it’s the character’s. But if a pop singer or songwriter writes a love song, a song of regret or even a bit of inscrutable doggerel like “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” it’s autobiography. The lyricist in a musical is writing the art of the character. Both are pathways to a truth, but there is a profound difference in process.

To be fair to Sondheim’s critics, the heart/mind dilemma is a constant for many songwriters, myself included. If a writer composes a lyric with a complex thought or vivid image and fails to say it well, then the lines seem pretentious. If the songwriter goes for the heart and misses, then it’s sentimental. Sondheim is the farthest thing from a sentimental songwriter that I know, but his songs of the heart are shaded with rueful sorrow (“Send In the Clowns”) and translucent compassion.

Categories: Books, Music, Theater

Fiddler on the Roof

May 29, 2010 Leave a comment

[Carol Rosegg, Seattle Times]

A touring production of Fiddler on the Roof, starring Harvey Fierstein as Tevye, is in town this week at the Paramount Theatre. Yesterday morning, Gail and I decided to see it, went on-line, and were still able to buy good tickets for last night’s showing– row J, a little off center. I had been hesitant to commit earlier to going, the memory still in my memory of a negative NYT review of Fierstein’s performance a few years back. But what the heck. We both love the music, a lavish production of the show isn’t going to pass through all that often, so we went.

I believe this is the first time I’ve seen a stage production of Fiddler since its initial run on Broadway in the 1960s. I didn’t have the good fortune at the time to see Zero Mostel as Tevye. My parents did, but by the time they got tickets for us kids, Zero had been replaced by Herschel Bernardi. No complaints. It was great, or so I thought at the time, and I’m happy to remember it as such. Gail came to Fiddler as a movie; she has always identified Tevye with Topol.

We had dinner with Joel before heading downtown to the movie, and I mentioned before leaving that my one fear regarding Fierstein was the difficulty I might have seeing him (or hearing him) without thinking of his role in the 1996 space alien invasion film Independence Day. The role is a minor one, but he plays it so compellingly, or so over the top, that his character stays with me.

That turned out not to be a problem. The problem was that his voice sounded so singularly bizarre that it got in the way of his character time and again. Some words didn’t come through clearly, and there was no hope of his conveying any sort of melody. Sometimes, the quirkiness of his voice worked in his favor, and sometimes it didn’t interfere, but a lot of the time it kept me from settling into the world of the musical. I was too often aware that that was Harvey Fierstein up there, with that famously odd voice, and the voice just wasn’t working well.

Maybe Fierstein was better when he first appeared as Tevye in the Broadway Fiddler revival a few years ago. The revival opened in 2004 with Alfred Molina in the lead. Fierstein must have replaced him at the beginning of 2005. In the NYT on January 21, Ben Brantley reviewed the Fierstein version, and while his comments about Fierstein are largely negative, they are at the same time admiring: “Mr. Fierstein inflects every line with at least a touch of the grandeur of old Hollywood movies, whether he’s being husky with sentimentality, smoky with regret or growly with displeasure. This can be quite a bit of fun. Tevye’s first solo, ‘If I Were a Rich Man,’ takes on a fascinating new life, as Mr. Fierstein slides and rasps through its wordless connecting phrases. But it is sometimes hard to credit this exotic spirit as that of a tradition-bound father who has trouble making the adjustment to changing times. … As for the show’s new Tevye, it would seem that this “Fiddler” has gone from having too little of a personality at its center to having too much of one. Still, as Tevye himself might argue, better an overspiced feast than a famine.”

More to the point for me would be this earlier passage from the review:

. . . audience members . . . may find him a slightly jarring presence.

Tevye must to some degree be an everyman, albeit in exaggerated, crowd-pleasing form. And Mr. Fierstein, bless him, shakes off any semblance of ordinariness as soon as he opens his mouth. Every phrase he speaks or sings, as he shifts uncannily among registers, becomes an event. And the effect is rather as if Ms. Channing were playing one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s simple, all-American heroines in “Oklahoma!” or “Carousel.”

That uncanny shifting of registers was all I could focus on in one early song, perhaps “If I Were a Rich Man.” There was a pitch around which Fierstein appeared to drop an octave or jump up an octave, and he crossed that point repeatedly.

Nonetheless, Fiddler is Fiddler, filled with all those great songs. Golde, played by understudy Rebecca Hoodwin, was excellent. The cast members playing the various young adult roles were most engaging, with lovely voices. We were glad we went.

Time to see Independence Day again.

Categories: Theater

Ethel’s Unexpected Appearance

May 24, 2010 Leave a comment

When I’m in my car, thanks to its satellite radio, I’m able to listen to Sirius XM’s On Broadway station. This is a curious experience. Most of the time, the station provides an education in the mediocrity of so much Broadway music. I know this is an unfair judgment; much of the mediocrity surely arises from the lack of context.

Who wants to hear music from South Pacific or Guys and Dolls over and over again? Why ruin the best of Broadway by over-playing it? Sirius XM doesn’t do this, fortunately, but as a result, I frequently tune in to songs from shows I don’t know. Thus, I am the one to blame for the lack of context, for not seeing enough musical theater, and I should be grateful, which I am, that the station exposes me to so much with which I would otherwise be unfamiliar.

And then there are the times when I tune in to the sublime. Like last Wednesday morning, as I drove home from an early morning errand. I know that song! It’s from Gypsy. Another great Stephen Sondheim song.* But wait. I know that voice! Why, it’s Ethel Merman! And so it was.

I was transported to my childhood. First I thought it was the song’s doing. Small World. I do love that song. Then I realized that no, it wasn’t the song, it was Ethel. I had forgotten how much her voice had permeated my childhood years. My parents would attend Broadway musicals and bring home the cast albums, which my father would proceed to play all weekend on our living room’s monaural hi-fi. And of course there was the radio. Ethel was everywhere.

I can’t find a link on the internet to her singing the song. For a snippet, go to the Amazon listing of the 1959 cast album (pictured above), scroll down to the song samples, and click on #4. That’s her, in a duet with Jack Klugman — yes, that Jack Klugman, better known to a later generation for his TV roles in The Odd Couple and Quincy, who doesn’t actually appear on the snippet. For a full version of the song, but with Bernadette Peters rather than Merman, you can listen below:

I went to several musicals on Broadway in the ’60s, but none in the ’50s. In particular, I didn’t see the original Gypsy. Worse, I didn’t see any of the Gypsy revivals, each of which featured a great actress as Rose: Angela Lansbury in 1974, the surprising Tyne Daly in 1989, Bernadette Peters in 2003, and Patti LuPone in 2008. I need to make it a point to see the next one.

*I should be more precise. Stephen Sondheim was responsible for the lyrics. The music was composed by Jule Styne. I wrote here two months ago about my love for Sondheim, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, and here, a year ago, about seeing a production of Sunday in the Park with George. Gypsy was Sondheim’s second musical, following West Side Story by two years. How’s that for the start of a career? (Next came A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the first musical for which he wrote both the songs’ words and music.)

Categories: Music, Theater

Haunting the Library

May 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Improv Everywhere posted their latest mission at their website this morning. You can watch the video above. It’s enjoyable enough, but not one of my favorites, perhaps because I was never much of a fan of Ghostbusters.

The video presentation of the mission shouldn’t be watched in isolation. Read also the description of the mission that follows the video at the mission webpage. Of particular interest is the fact that the mission originated through a request by the New York Public Library to host a mission as a means of publicizing their current financial difficulties.

Watching the three ghosts enter the library’s reading room, I found myself thinking of an on-line discussion at Andrew Sullivan’s blog last week regarding the wearing of burqas and niqabs. The discussion’s starting point was a piece by Christopher Hitchens at Slate on the issue of banning the wearing of burqas in France. Hitchens notes, as part of his discussion, that “[o]n the door of my bank in Washington, D.C., is a printed notice politely requesting me to remove any form of facial concealment before I enter the premises. The notice doesn’t bore me or weary me by explaining its reasoning: A person barging through those doors with any sort of mask would incur the right and proper presumption of guilt. This presumption should operate in the rest of society. I would indignantly refuse to have any dealings with a nurse or doctor or teacher who hid his or her face, let alone a tax inspector or customs official.”

Sullivan made reference to Hitchens’ article here, then continued the thread with several more posts sharing reader reactions. Of particular interest in the context of the New York Public Library mission is this reader’s comment:

I work in a public library in a very large American city and have encountered several women in a burqa at the reference desk. Immediately I am struck by how our culture is not set up for a woman to be almost completely covered like that. I am a woman, and have found myself several times by myself at the reference desk trying to converse with another woman, who happens to be veiled. The veil made it difficult to hear these women since it covered their mouths. It occurred to me this burqa is not designed for a free society where women are allowed and actually expected to speak for themselves. Body language communication was impossible to read from these veiled women which is such a huge part of conversing, almost as big as the words actually said.

Watch the video again. See the guard question the first ghost. Notice the reactions of the patrons when ghosts sit next to them. There’s no religious context here, just the oddity of sharing space with someone whose only visible facial features are his, or her, eyes.

Categories: Humor, Movies, Theater

Ford’s Theater

May 11, 2010 Leave a comment

In my last two posts on our trip to Washington, D.C., and Civil War battlefields, I discussed our return to Washington from Gettysburg and subsequent visit to the National Museum of American History, then our dinner that evening at Café du Parc. In this post, I’ll move on to our visit of Ford’s Theater the next morning (a week ago today)..

I had decided after we visited the battlefield in Gettysburg that the theater would be a perfect place to conclude our Civil War travels, and so it was. We had started our journey on Saturday at Harpers Ferry, where John Brown‘s raid of the federal armory in 1859 played a key role in the build-up to war, and whose takeover by Confederate troops in September 1862 was the lead-in to the battle a couple of days later at Antietam, site of the greatest number of casualties in a single day in US military history. Antietam National Battlefield was, in fact, our next stop, that afternoon. That night we arrived in Gettysburg, whose Gettysburg National Military Park we visited over the next two days. This was the scene of the worst battle of the Civil War, from July 1 to July 3, 1863. After driving to DC on Monday afternoon, we reviewed more Civil War history at the National Museum of American History, and had a look at the furniture used by Generals Lee and Grant to sign documents after Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. Now, Tuesday morning, we were to visit Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was assassinated just five days later.

The theater sits on 10th Street, between E and F Streets. Our hotel was also between E and F, just west of 14th Street. Thus the theater was a short walk away. We had 10:00 reservations, or so I thought. It turns out that I had screwed up in my effort to secure reservations through Ticketmaster two nights earlier, a screw-up I actually blame on Ticketmaster, but it won’t do any good now. There are several options for visiting, depending on what time one chooses and what else is happening at the theater (which is a working theater, with on-going productions). One can visit the museum in the basement, under the theater itself. Or one can combine a museum visit with a ranger talk. Or one can combine the museum visit with the viewing of a short play, One Destiny. I tried to choose the third option. It seems I had selected the second. I was aware of the ambiguity at the Ticketmaster website and so re-started the process several times in order to try to resolve the ambiguity correctly, but Ticketmaster defeated me. When I got to the box office at 9:45 to pick up our tickets, I learned that we were too late — the ranger talk started at 9:30. But I didn’t want the ranger talk. Well, tickets were still available for the 10:00 entry with museum and play, at a charge of $5.00 apiece. This was odd, since Ticketmaster said everything was free, except for fees, which I had already paid for nothing. No matter. No point arguing. We were there for the play. We could see the play. We just had to kiss goodbye the $6.00 I had already invested for nothing through Ticketmaster and pay another $10.00, then get on line, where Gail was already standing, behind a gigantic school group.

At 10:00, we were let in and directed to the museum in the basement. The structure of our visit was now clear. We would be allowed to look at the exhibits until a little before 10:45, when we would be sent back upstairs for the play, and then (I suspected) we would be kicked out; that is, we would be denied further access to the museum, unless we wanted to get tickets for later entry. This is indeed what happened, to Gail’s immense frustration, since we hadn’t had time to see all the exhibits before the play and she wanted to go back downstairs afterwards. It isn’t easy to see everything, by the way, when a group of some 60 kids is wandering around, chatting, texting, etc. I don’t blame them. I wonder how well prepared they were for the visit. They weren’t loud or boisterous. Just distracted. And there was also a group of ten or so bigwigs getting a private tour by a young woman, the quality of whose comments seemed distinctly lower than the text of the displays. This group tended to be more of a problem than the kids, since the group would stand in front of exhibits for minutes at a time while being spoken to.

Anyway, there was lots to see. including the centerpiece: the derringer that John Wilkes Booth used to shoot Lincoln. Around 10:40, we headed upstairs behind the massive school group and took our seats for the play. It was unexpectedly effective. There are two actors, playing the roles of Harry Ford, eponymous co-owner of the Theater, and Harry Hawk, the comedic actor who was on stage in mid-performance when Booth shot Lincoln and jumped down. They review the events of the day, taking on the roles of others in the theater that day as well as themselves while discussing what happened and what might have been. The production lasted about 35 minutes, after which the two actors (Stephen F. Schmidt and Michael Bunce) stayed onstage to answer audience questions for about 20 minutes. They were every bit as good at this as they were at acting. Very impressive. About halfway through the Q&A, the school group got up to leave. Odd. Perhaps they had a plane to catch. They were quiet, under the circumstances, but it was a distraction. The actors wrapped it up, we left, and were required to exit the theater onto the sidewalk. No going back down to the museum.

Our museum tickets also entitled us to a visit of Petersen House across the street, where Lincoln was taken and tended to after the shooting, and where he died early the next morning. One climbs a stairway from the street to reach the front door, then goes into the front room, where Mary Lincoln waited, then the back room, where Lincoln lay and died. Space is tight, only a handful of people are let in at a time, and only 3 or 4 can stand in the back room, from which a door leads down stairs and around a corner to an alley that returns to the street.

I will never forget how powerful the experience was of coming to the end of David Herbert Donald’s 1995 biography Lincoln and reading the concluding death scene. I felt I was there, as I described in a post I wrote a year ago, on the occasion of Donald’s own death. We were fortunate to visit Ford’s Theater and Petersen House a year after I read the biography, and fortunate to return.

I’ll close with the final paragraph of Donald’s book, his description of the moments after Lincoln died:

In the small, crowded back room there was silence until [Secretary of War] Stanton asked Dr. Gurley to offer a prayer. Robert gave way to overpowering grief and sobbed aloud, leaning on Sumner for comfort. Standing at the foot of the bed, his face covered with tears, Stanton paid tribute to his fallen chief: with a slow and measured movement, his right arm fully extended as if in a salute, he raised his hat and placed it for an instant on his head and then in the same deliberate manner removed it. “Now,” he said, “he belongs to the ages.”

Categories: History, Theater, Travel

Sondheim Celebration

March 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin, singing at the Sondheim celebration

[Sara Krulwich/The New York Times]

Did you read Stephen Holden’s review in today’s NYT of the concert at Avery Fisher Hall two nights ago in honor of Stephen Sondheim’s upcoming 80th birthday? It sounds glorious. My friend Tina was there, and she wrote a short report about it on her Facebook page last night. (Tina is a talented singer-songwriter who over the last decade has turned to writing/composing songs for musicals. Formerly based in greater Seattle and on Whidbey Island, she now lives in New York.) She called the event “the highest point in my 55 years of show-going. … I kept thinking ‘These are all show-stopping moments. What the hell are they going to do for the finale?’ And then the finale came. Hundreds of performers from shows currently on Broadway streamed down the aisles (all dressed in black), singing the finale from Sunday in the Park with George, they were in every aisle, and even all the boxes, 2, 3 levels up. It was the most beautiful, emotional moment I’ve ever personally experienced in a theatre. Wish everyone who loves Sondheim could have been there.”

I’m in the class of Sondheim lovers, and I sure wish I could have been there. Gail and I especially love Sunday in the Park with George, which we saw on Broadway in August 1985, near the tail end of our honeymoon. You might say it’s our musical. We didn’t see the original cast — Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters were long gone — but it was magical nonetheless.

(Looking over the data at this handy site, I see that Sunday in the Park ran from May 2, 1984 to October 13, 1985, so we would have seen it near the end of its run. Patinkin’s successors were Robert Westenberg and Harry Groener; Peter’s were Betsy Joslyn and Maryann Plunkett. Perhaps, then, we saw Groener and Plunkett. I don’t remember. There was a workshop version in July 1983 that included, in smaller roles, Kelsey Grammer and Christine Baranski.)

A slide show accompanies the NYT review. Have a look. I’ll close with one quote from Holden’s review:

It remained for Ms. Stritch to deliver the evening’s showstopper, “I’m Still Here.” This great trouper, now 85, used her increasing physical fragility to maximum dramatic effect, building the anthem of show business survival from a dismissive casualness to a peak that was not the usual triumphal assertion of ego. Instead, it became a struggle for the character to break through her own fatigue in little bursts. The final phrases of this daring interpretation ended on a note of ambivalence, as if to say, “I may still be here, but at this point, what does it really matter?” The performance received a standing ovation.

Categories: Music, Theater