Monday, December 31, 2007


Since I started 2007 seeing a touring production of the musical "Wicked" it's only fitting that I ended the year reading Gregory Maguire's novel. I finished it tonight.

Let's start out by saying that the two really don't have very much in common. They're so different that it's a bit disingenuous, if not downright deceptive, for the publisher to use the same cover on the mass-market paperback that's displayed on the posters and cast CD for the musical.

Where "Wicked" the musical is uplifting and family friendly with a clear message about friendship and not judging people by the way they look, "Wicked" the novel is violent and ominous and so crammed with ideas that by the end, I have to admit I felt more than a little bewildered about what it all meant. And while the musical is perfect for all ages, the book is clearly geared toward older teenagers or adults.

Maguire sets out to tell the story of the Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, (whose name is an homage to L. Frank Baum, the 19th-century creator of the Oz books). His Land of Oz is a rich, complex fantasy world ruled over by a malevolent wizard, a world in which Animals (with a capital "A") talk and think and hold positions of authority.

Elphaba's father is a minister and religion plays a big part in the story. Unfortunately, the various belief systems are never fully described. (The book really could have used a glossary.) Elphaba's sister, Nessarose, who ends up as the ruler of Munchkinland and presides over its secession from Oz, is fiercely devout. In the musical she's confined to a wheelchair. In the novel, she's born without arms. It's only her magical shoes that allow her to stand upright.

Maguire obviously intends the novel to be a kind of grab bag reflection on the dangers of unchecked political power, the ease with which minorities can be stripped of their rights when the larger society simply looks the other way, how horrible acts can be hidden behind innocuous language. He offers a condemnation of the 20th century's worst evils - his writing conjures up images of Nazi Germany, Eastern European pogroms and radical terrorist groups.

In this world, Elphaba is set apart not only by her green skin and intense fear of water, but by a highly developed moral sensibility. It reaches a zenith when she's a student at Shiz University, where she meets spoiled rich girl Galinda, country boy Boq and tribal prince Fiyero.

Elphaba is shocked at what is happening to Dr. Dillamond, a goat who teaches biology, and to other Animals. Gradually, they "lose their rights, one by one. Just slowly enough so that it's hard to see as a coherent political campaign." When she meets the Wizard to protest, he tells her "it is not for a girl, or a student, or a citizen to assess what is wrong. This is the job of leaders, and why we exist."

After her unsettling confrontation with the Wizard, Elphaba leaves Shiz and dedicates herself to fighting for Animal rights. She joins a shadowy, underground terror cell whose purpose is never fully explored. Fiyero reconnects with her, and they become lovers. Soon, Elphaba's attempt at a political assassination goes awry, and it's strongly implied that she's the cause of Fiyero's death.

Elphaba spends several years in a nunnery, then travels to Fiyero's tribal home to ask forgiveness from his widow. She brings along a small boy who may or may not be her child with Fiyero. Eventually, Elphaba returns to Munchkinland where she has a final confrontation with the people who have played important roles in her life: Nessarose, her father, Galinda, who is now called Glinda, and finally, with Dorothy.

Maguire has said that the inspiration for "Wicked" came from a desire to explore the nature of evil: "I realized that nobody had ever written about the second most evil character in our collective American subconscious, the Wicked Witch of the West, I thought I had experienced a small moment of inspiration."

While Elphaba does reprehensible things, she's portrayed more as misguided than truly monstrous. And she's certainly not amoral. She's genuinely concerned about the Wizard's totalitarian rule, about what's happening to the Animals, and she appears truly guilty over her part in Fiyero's death. Elphaba reminds me more of one of those overly idealistic 1960s college students who ended up getting radicalized and joining groups like the Weathermen and going over the edge into violence.

It seems to me that the truly evil people in "Wicked" are the Wizard and Madame Morrible, the head of Elphaba's college at Shiz. They're the ones who act undemocratically, who try to take rights away from the Animals. They're the ones who seem to me to be truly monstrous. Yet their backgrounds and motivations and actions are hardly explored at all by Maguire.

I'm glad I read "Wicked," even though I'm not a big fan of the fantasy genre. And I greatly prefer the musical version. Reading the novel gave me have an even deeper appreciation for the accomplishment of book writer Winnie Holzman and composer Stephen Schwartz. It's interesting to see what they took from Maguire's novel and what they tossed out.

They kept fairly close to the political points that Maguire wanted to make, even though they probably didn't keep a single line of dialogue. The main characters are pretty much the same, although their interactions are vastly different. Schwartz and Holzman basically turned them into American teenagers. The political element is still there, although thankfully vastly simplified. The religious references are almost completely eliminated.

While almost all of the changes improved the story, one was a little disappointing. In the book, Fiyero is described as "dark-skinned," but he's generally portrayed on stage by a white actor. It seems to me that the producers of "Wicked" lost a chance to make the cast more diverse and inclusive. Perhaps they simply wanted to make Elphaba's "greenness" stand out more.

What Holzman and Schwartz have done that's absolutely brilliant is to make the story lighter, funnier, more poignant, more human. The musical is much more a story of the pain of adolescence, of the power of friendship, of feeling like you just don't fit in. They added an entirely new layer of meaning that was pretty much absent from Maguire's novel and made the story more universal. (No pun intended!) By streamlining the story, they've made the message simpler, more direct, more thought-provoking.

Coincidentally, I finished reading "Wicked" the same day that my friend Steve posted his review of seeing the musical in Tokyo. For Steve and his beloved, "Wicked" is their musical. His reasons sum up perfectly what Holzman and Schwartz have done: it's the "ingenious inside-out twisting of "The Wizard Of Oz" fable we grew up on, or our hope from its message that different can be a virtue, or our love of its clever and often soaring tunes.''

Gregory Maguire owes Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman big time. Just as MGM did a nearly a century ago with L. Frank Baum's work, Holzman and Schwartz have taken Maguire's tale about a complex fantasy world and refashioned it into a classic.

One final note: I once worked in the small upstate New York village of Chittenango, where L. Frank Baum was born. When I was there, the village was clearly eager to cash in on its Oz connection: there was an annual Oz parade, a store called Auntie Em's and a sidewalk painted in yellow brick. A real estate agent showed me several apartments in rundown old buildings where, she assured me, Baum had lived as a child. Fortunately or unfortunately, I never took any of them.

Can't stop the musicals

This has been an especially great couple of years at the movies for fans of musical theater, starting with last winter's "Dreamgirls," then "Hairspray!" over the summer, and now, "Sweeney Todd."

While the cinematic version of "Sweeney Todd" is too intense for my tender sensibilities, there's no question that I'll be heading to my local multiplex on July 18 to see the next stage-to-screen production, "Mamma Mia!"

I've seen the trailer, (thanks to Chris for the link) and it's gotten me pretty excited. One of the things I liked about the movie version of "Hairspray" was the way director Adam Shankman opened up some of the numbers, like showing Nikki Blonsky's Tracy Turnblad making her way to school in "Good Morning Baltimore." He really brought the song to life. I'm hoping the same will happen with "Mamma Mia!"

I'm really looking forward to watching Meryl Streep, America's greatest living actress, singing and dancing on a sun-drenched Greek island - a perfect combination! Not to mention costars Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Julie Walters.

In the Telegraph, Charles Spencer has an interview with three of the creative forces behind "Mamma Mia!" Judy Craymer, the producer who had the idea of turning Abba's hits into a stage show, Catherine Johnson, the writer, and Phyllida Lloyd, the director.

Craymer talks about getting Meryl Streep for the movie: "She saw the show on Broadway and wrote us a fan letter saying what a great time she'd had. And it all happened rather fast. We spoke to her agent, her agent spoke to her, and apparently she said: "Mamma Mia!?? I AM Mamma Mia!?" and the next thing we knew, we were on a plane to see her, like over-excited teenagers."

Lloyd says that Streep threw herself into the project. "She told us she thought the role would really stretch her - it gave her a chance to be a singer, a rocker, a mother, and to use her looney-tunes farce skills."

And Johnson adds that she's pleased she got to keep the sole writing credit on the movie. She tells Spencer, "I kept expecting to be replaced at any moment by David Mamet or somebody."

I saw the stage version of "Mamma Mia!" at Broadway's Winter Garden Theatre in July and I had a great time. It was the first show in my sumertime musicals marathon - seven tuners in five days.

You know how sometimes a little snippet of music just pops into your head? Well, although I was never a huge ABBA fan, the songs have definitely stayed with me - every once in awhile I'll find myself humming a verse from "I Have A Dream," "Dancing Queen" or "Honey Honey."

"Mamma Mia!" is sweet and charming and funny with very likable characters. At the core of the story is the relationship between mom Donna Sheridan, a singer turned tavern owner played on Broadway by Carolee Carmello, and daughter Sophie, played by Carey Anderson. Sophie invites three of her mother's ex-flames to her wedding, in hopes of discovering which one is her father. Carmello and Anderson bring lots of energy heart to their roles.

(I have to say, though, that no one in the show looks like the dark-haired bride pictured on the original cast recording and posters).

And the show has had incredible staying power, spawning productions around the world. "Mamma Mia!" has played more than 2,500 performances since opening on Broadway on Oct. 18, 2001, and manages to fill nearly 90 percent of its seats every week - without resorting to stunt casting. It's one of those shows that appeals to theatergoers of all ages, and from what I could tell, all nationalities.

Although I do wonder how parents explain the plot to young children - a woman who invites three men, one of whom is likely her father, to her wedding. What happens when they ask, "Why doesn't she know which one is her daddy?"

Sunday, December 30, 2007

iPod therefore I am, Part II

Since some of you out there unwrapped iPods on Christmas or Hanukkah, I thought I'd continue to write about my favorite podcasts. I covered films earlier. Here are some book-related ones that I like. After reading a good book, I often poke around on the Internet searching for interviews with the author, and these are good places to start.

But first, before you start uploading your iPod with your favorie tunes and podcasts, iLounge is a great reference source for reviews of iPod accessories, including that all-important case with a screen protector to keep your baby looking shiny and new.

Barnes & Noble Meet the Writers: These are short podcasts, usually running from 10 to 15 minutes, but the authors provide some interesting insight into the writing process. Recent guests have included Washington Post senior Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks talking about "Fiasco," his bestseller about the war in Iraq, humorist David Sedaris, Chris Van Allsburg, prize-winning author and illustrator of children's books, and Vince Flynn, writer of political thrillers, who discusses struggle with dyslexia and how he got started as an author. The Web site also has links to video interviews, including a nice one with "Wicked" author Gregory Maguire.

BBC's World Book Club: The BBC's Harriet Gilbert has a half-hour monthly program that offers World Service listeners a chance to send in their questions. Recent episodes have included a fifth-anniversary interview with Michael Ondaatje, who discusses his novel "The English Patient," a talk with "Tales of the City" author Armistead Maupin, and crime writer Sara Paretsky. January's program will feature J.G. Ballard, talking about "Empire of the Sun." You can submit a question here.

Fresh Air with Terry Gross from WHYY in Philadelphia and On Point with Tom Ashbrook from WBUR in Boston: While these programs cover more than books, they often have authors as guests. Each show is about 45 minutes, long enough for some in-depth, thought-provoking questions. I've especially enjoyed Terry Gross' interviews with novelist Philip Roth and playwright Tony Kushner. Tom Ashbrook's recent shows have included a look at Jane Austen mania and an interview with "Little Children" author Tom Perrotta.

NPR Books: Like it does for music and movies, National Public Radio collects the best segments on books from all of its shows each week and puts them in one tidy podcast package ranging from 15 to 45 minutes. The books podcast includes author interviews, reviews and feature stories. Recent segments have looked at taking British novelist Ian McEwan's "Atonement" from page to screen, remembering author Norman Mailer, and a discussion of "The Dirt on Clean," Katherine Ashenburg's new book on the history of cleanliness. You can find a complete list of NPR podcasts here.

Slate's Audio Book Club: assembles a roundtable of panelists who discuss a single title. There's no set schedule, they seem to do it once every few months. Each program runs about an hour. The choices have included fiction and nonfiction, newly published books and classics, ranging from Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking" to Toni Morrison's "Beloved," to Philip Roth's "Everyman" to Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's "The Audacity of Hope."

Washington Post Book World: Book World editors Marie Arana and Ron Charles interview two authors in the half-hour show. Recent guests have included the very funny Christopher Buckley, author of "Thank you for Smoking," talking about his new book "Boomsday," and former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, who's moved on from the Greatest Generation to chronicling the 1960s.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

A perfect double feature

I just want to kvell a bit over some good news this week about two of my favorite Broadway shows.

Playbill quotes a Variety story that "August: Osage County," Tracy Letts' masterful family drama, has taken in more than $3 million in advance sales. Producer Jeffrey Richards says that's "one of the largest advances of a straight play in recent history — and it's playing in one of the largest houses." The play is at the Imperial Theatre, which seats nearly 1,500, and it has an amazing cast from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

I can't say enough how deeply this play resonated with me. And, more good news on the "August" front, Letts' play will come out in paperback on April 1. I can't wait to laugh again over some of his witty, biting dialogue.

Also, "Curtains," one of my favorite musicals, hit its 300th performance at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on Dec. 28. This show is the final one from the legendary team of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, the pair responsible for "Chicago," and "Cabaret." It's got a fun backstage murder mystery to solve, great music, great dance numbers and a wonderful cast, led by Tony winner David Hyde Pierce and Debra Monk. I've listened to the cast CD over and over.

If you're planning a trip to New York and you only have space for one musical and one play, "Curtains" and "August: Osage County" would make a perfect double feature.

Friday, December 28, 2007

The rest is commentary

Tonight I listened to the audio commentary on "This is Spinal Tap." Harry Shearer, Michael McKean and Christopher Guest participate in character as the three band members in director Rob Reiner's mock documentary. I don't think I'd seen the film since it came out in 1984, but I'd heard that the commentary track was pretty funny, and it is.

Personally, I'm one of those people who loves nothing better than to listen to the commentary after watching a great movie on DVD. I've even gone so far as to tape the audio and upload it to my iPod for listening on the go.

Unfortunately, it's difficult to know which ones are worthwhile. Sometimes they're full of technical jargon. Other times, they're not specific enough or contain too much dead air, long stretches when no one is talking. Sometimes they simply become an excuse for the actors and director to lavish each other with praise, or for the director to point out which friends and family members got bit parts in the movie.

I think the best ones don't simply describe what's going on in a particular scene, but really enhance my appreciation of the movie by pointing out things that I might have missed. They include plenty of behind-the-scenes stories, background about how the movie came to be made, some historical perspective if it's based on a true story, and a sense of what the actors and director were trying to achieve.

Some of the best commentaries I've listened to are Francis Ford Coppola (pictured above) on all three parts of "The Godfather," Roger Ebert on "Citizen Kane" and "Casablanca," and screenwriter Julian Fellowes on the Robert Altman movie "Gosford Park." Morgan Freeman and Matthew Broderick provide some very interesting, poignant remarks on the making of the Civil War movie "Glory," and as bonus, you can see them talking in a small pop up in a corner of the screen. Also, as a Kevin Spacey fan, in addition to his singing and dancing, I really enjoyed his commentary on the Bobby Darin biopic "Beyond the Sea."

Fellowes, who won an Oscar for his work on the movie, is a great example of someone who goes beyond describing what I'm seeing on the screen. He obviously knows the social environment of the movie intimately, as he talks in great depth about the upstairs/downstairs world of an English country house in the 1930s.

And Ebert, in a witty, conversational style recounts all of the stories behind the making of those two classic films. I especially love his commentary on "Casablanca," my favorite movie of all time. (There was never any doubt that Ilsa was getting on that plane with Victor Lazlo. This was 1942 and he was her husband).

Coppola's commentaries are probably the best I've ever heard, and I've listened to all nine hours. At times sounding frustrated and angry, he recounts in detail the process of adapting Mario Puzo's novel, his struggles with the studio, the casting process, and how he created a distinct cinematic style in scenes such as the wedding that opens the first Godfather movie.

Some filmmakers, such as Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen, are notorious for not doing commentaries. At least Spielberg offers substantial making-of documentaries for classics such as "Jaws," many of them by Laurent Bouzereau. Woody offers his fans bupkus. Oh what I wouldn't give for Woody and Diane Keaton to record a commentary for "Annie Hall," another one of my all-time favorite movies.

Here's a site that gives brief descriptions of the best tracks on both recent and classic films, and another one that ranks the Top 100 commentaries according to user votes. For tips on what to avoid, you can also check out a list of the lowest-rated commentaries. And DVD Movie Guide provides an in-depth review of extras on the new releases that it reviews.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

My top theatrical moments of 2007

I loved all of the shows I saw too much to pick out a Top 10, but since everyone's making lists at this time of year, I wanted to have one, too. (Yes, if everyone jumped off the bridge, I would be right there in line waiting for my turn).

When I think about it, these are my favorite moments of 2007. There are many more performances and songs and shows that I haven't mentioned. Some shows I really enjoyed didn't make the cut. I loved the energy and inventiveness of "Spring Awakening," but when I think back, I can't single out one defining moment in the show. (Well, I did cry at the end). And I tried to stick with the absolutely most awe-inducing moments. So here's my list, in chronological order:

1. Listening to "For Good" for the first time. I've said before how much I love "Wicked," the first show I saw this year, way back in January. The song's poignancy carried all the way up to the mezzanine of the large theater where I saw the touring production. I cried when I heard it the first time, and 20 years from now, I'll still cry. It is an absolutely beautiful song about the enduring power of friendship and a testament to the power of theater.

2. Eve Best bursting through the door of the ramshackle farmhouse in "A Moon for the Misbegotten" and Kevin Spacey's entrance. From the moment Eve Best burst through that door at the very start of "A Moon for the Misbegotten," I was hooked. Her Josie Hogan exuded such toughness and physicality and strength, yet had an underlying tenderness. I believed that she could have run that farm pretty much singlehandedly while keeping her father, brothers and anyone else in line. And then, a half-hour into the play, Kevin Spacey's Jim Tyrone comes walking down the road. I couldn't believe it. The whole reason I'd come to Broadway, and there he was, right before my eyes!

3. The ending of "Curtains." I don't want to give anything away, so I'll keep this brief. When Lt. Frank Cioffi, played by David Hyde Pierce, comes back on stage at the very end of "Curtains," well, it was just about the funniest thing I've seen on stage, screen or television in a long time. It's a great entrance by an actor with great comic timing. Davide Hyde Pierce gave one of my favorite performances of the year.

4. Angela Lansbury up close in "Deuce." I know I'm in the minority, but I thoroughly enjoyed Terrence McNally's "Deuce." I loved spending 90 minutes in the presence of Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes. I loved listening to their two characters talk about their lives as professional tennis players, and what happened after their playing days were over. My seat was on the right side of the orchestra, about 10 rows back. At one point, Angela Lansbury stands up and speaks, and she was on the right, practically in front of me.

5. "I Know Where I've Been" from "Hairspray." Yvette Monique Clark's rendition was so powerful, so emotional when I heard it in the touring production of "Hairspray." The song really evokes the civil-rights anthems of the 1960s. At the end, black kids and white kids, standing from one end of the stage to another, are holding hands. It was the first time I ever felt like giving a song a standing ovation.

6. Hearing Audra McDonald's voice for the first time. Before I heard Patti LuPone in "Gypsy" or Christine Ebersole in "Grey Gardens," I heard four-time Tony winner Audra McDonald sing in "110 in the Shade." What a revelation. While I'd heard Audra sing on the Tony awards, it doesn't begin to capture what it's like to hear her live. I don't think I'd ever heard such a beautiful voice in person before. I'm so glad I saw this show. (And I think its a great example of when colorblind casting works perfectly).

7. Magical "Mary Poppins." I loved Matthew Bourne's exuberant choreography in numbers such as "Step in Time." But watching Gavin Lee's Bert dance upside down across the proscenium and Ashley Brown's Mary Poppins fly through the air were truly exciting, jaw-dropping moments. I envied all of the children in the audience at "Mary Poppins" who where seeing their very first Broadway show.

8. "I'm Here" and the ending of "The Color Purple." Saycon Sengbloh was terrific in "The Color Purple" as poor, downtrodden Celie, who learns to love herself and overcome her circumstances. I was deeply affected by her story, especially as she sings "I'm Here," and the emotional ending. I truly felt like I had witnessed a transformation. By the end, I had been on a journey with her, and I was crying.

9. Patti LuPone singing "Everything's Coming Up Roses" in "Gypsy." By the end of "Everything's Coming Up Roses," I was on my feet cheering with everyone else at New York's City Center. I'd never been part of a standing ovation for a song before, but she deserved it. What a powerful, thrilling, moment. And unless there's a cast recording someday, I probably won't hear it ever again. Luckily, LuPone, Laura Benanti and Boyd Gaines are set to reprise their roles in "Gypsy." The revival is scheduled to open March 27 at the St. James Theatre. Maybe I'll get that cast CD after all.

10. Hitchcock cameo, chase on a train in "The 39 Steps." This show, which I saw in Boston during its pre-Broadway tryout, is so hilarious, it's hard to pick out just one moment as my favorite. So I'll give you two: the scene on the train when Richard Hannay, who's been wrongly accused of murder, is trying to escape the authorities, and a cameo by the master of suspense himself. "The 39 Steps" starts previews at the American Airlines Theatre on Jan. 4.

11. Amy Morton's outburst in "August: Osage County." There's a point in this absorbing, masterful play when Amy Morton's character realizes that she has to take charge, and she has an outburst that took my breath away. It's a moment that happens to many people, especially to many women, when the child becomes the parent. It certainly resonated with me, as did much of Tracy Letts' witty and emotional writing, and the amazing Steppenwolf actors. Don't miss "August: Osage County."

12. Kevin Kline's entrance and sword fighting in "Cyrano." Ok, in my admittedly short theatergoing career, I've developed a love for nontraditional exits and entrances - ones where the actors come and go through the orchestra or the balcony. Kevin Kline has a great entrance in "Cyrano." Plus, I saw my first sword fight on stage. What could be better!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Truth in advertising

I was a little surprised when I went to buy the original Broadway cast CD of "Young Frankenstein" today. There's a sticker on the cover that has a quote from The New York Times: "Truly exhilarating."

Funny, I didn't remember Ben Brantley being quite so enthusiastic about the new Mel Brooks musical currently playing at Broadway's Hilton Theatre. In fact, I think he came pretty close to panning it.

When I got home, I looked up the review, and here's what Brantley actually wrote: "There is one truly exhilarating number, though you have to sit through most of the show before it arrives." (The number Brantley is referring to is "Puttin' on the Ritz.")

The second quote on the sticker, "A Monster hit," isn't attributed at all. It doesn't seem to appear anywhere in Brantley's review. But if you didn't know any better, you could easily assume that it did come from the Times.

So, is this what it's come to Mel? Are you so desperate to make a buck that you've resorted to a very selective use of reviews to sell CDs? The $450 tickets for orchestra seats on Friday and Saturday nights aren't enough?

There's a lot I really loved about "Young Frankenstein," including Christopher Fitzgerald's madcap take on Igor, the "Roll in the Hay" number with Fitzgerald, Roger Bart and Sutton Foster on the way to Frankenstein's castle. And I'm hoping the CD will bring back some of my favorite moments from the show. But I have to admit my enthusiasm is waning.

Mel, I've laughed at your movies for years. Now, I just have a sour taste in my mouth. I'm guessing that you haven't seen the sticker. In any case, I'm not angry. I'm just very, very disappointed.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Two Jews and a Muslim in Bethlehem

In October 1998, when I was living in Israel, I went to Jerusalem for a few days to visit Ellen, a woman I knew who lived there. She asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I'd like to see Bethlehem, which is only about 20 minutes away.

First, we stopped at an Arab village to meet a Palestinian friend of Ellen's who would go with us. Her friend and his father and brothers had done renovation work on her home. She and her children had stayed overnight in the village. I don't think this is something an Israeli would typically do, but Ellen was an American who'd been married to an Israeli.

So, I met Yusuf and his family. We stopped at the little grocery store that his parents ran. I saw the house they were building for all their children, their spouses and grandchildren. Then the three of us, two Jews and Muslim, piled in Ellen's car and headed to Bethlehem.

Bethlehem is like a lot of places I've seen in the Middle East. It just looks ancient, with stone buildings and dusty streets. I don't think there are too many Christians left in this mostly Muslim town. A huge mosque sits across Manger Square from the Church of the Nativity.

The church doesn't look like much from the outside. The main entrance and windows were blocked off during the Middle Ages. But inside, it's very ornate and kind of dark, with lots of candles and columns and icons and mosaics on the floors. The spot where Jesus was born is marked by a star in the floor of a little grotto, and tourists crowd around it taking pictures.

I'm not really a very religious or spiritual person, but sometimes I do envy people who have that kind of faith. I think it can be very comforting in difficult times. And there was just something so poignant about watching all of these people, many of whom I think were American tourists, who'd come such a long way to huddle around this little spot on the floor. I'm sure it just meant the world to them.

For me, the best part of the trip came afterward. Ellen, Yusuf and I went to a little cafe and sat outside and ate all kinds of delicious pastries. There wasn't a great deal of interaction between Jews and Arabs then, and there's probably even less today. But just seeing the level of trust they had for each other, their friendship, is something I've never forgotten.

I have no idea whether Ellen and Yusuf are still friends or even in touch. But it's a memory worth recalling. That's my Bethlehem story. I wish everyone a very happy and peaceful Christmas.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Josh Groban's gift

Singer-songwriter Josh Groban has a holiday gift for his fans.

Starting on Christmas Eve, visitors to his Web site can download a free MP3 of his live version of Paul Simon's "America." (The news release from Warner Bros. records says you to fill out a few fields of information. I'm not sure how involved that will be).

According to the release, the 26-year-old Groban's current album, "Noel," has been at the No. 1 slot on the Billboard charts for four weeks, beating Elvis Presley's Christmas record of 1957. No other Christmas album has been on the pop charts for four consecutive weeks in the 51-year history of the Billboard charts.

"As 2007 closes out and I look back, I have so much to be grateful for including getting the chance to perform for my fans on the 'Awake Tour' all over the world as well as the huge success of my Christmas album,'' Groban says. "I wanted to give a special gift to all the people who have been there for me. Paul Simon is one of my favorite artists and 'America' has always been a song I've loved. It's my way of saying thank you as the year comes to a close."

I'm a huge Simon and Garfunkel fan, so I'll definitely be visiting the Web site to get Groban's take on one of my favorite Paul Simon songs. The track will be available from Dec. 24 through the end of the year.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Still kicking

I had the privilege of seeing the legendary Chita Rivera on stage in May, as she toured with her show "Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life." Wow. Watching her sing, dance and tell stories, it was so hard to believe I was watching a woman who will turn 75 next month.

And she's a great storyteller as well as a talented singer and dancer. I loved hearing her talk about what it was like starting out, all the people she's worked with, including Dick Van Dyke, Gwen Verdon and Antonio Banderas. I really got a sense of her life, her career, what the dancer's life on Broadway is like, and what keeps her going.

So I was pleased to find out that in celebration of the 50th anniversary of "West Side Story," Rivera and some of the other original cast members from the landmark musical performed on Monday during the annual Gypsy of the Year competition sponsored by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

At the Broadway Cares Web site you can look at pictures, like the one above, taken by Jay Brady, and watch the tribute to "West Side Story," which opened on Broadway on Sept. 26, 1957 at the Winter Garden Theatre.

The Gypsy of the Year is the culmination of six weeks of intensive fundraising, during which more than 64 Broadway, off-Broadway and national touring companies solicit donations for Broadway Cares. This year, they raised more than $3.9 million that will go to food banks, health clinics, and AIDS and family service organizations across the United States.

Broadway's "gypsies" are the talented dancers and singers who start out like Chita Rivera - in the chorus, and dream of someday having their own star turn.

At the end of "The Dancer's Life," Rivera said she often think of the one person in the audience who may be inspired to become a dancer, and that makes it all worthwhile. Whether or not you become a dancer after seeing this theatrical icon, she's definitely an inspiration.

Friday, December 21, 2007

More "30 Rock" love

I loved NBC's "30 Rock" when it debuted last year, and I think the show, which won the Emmy for Best Comedy, is even funnier this year. The writers have really outdone themselves with hilarious plots, some of which definitely have a ripped-from-the-headlines quality to them.

Some of my favorites include the episode where Alec Baldwin's Jack takes over an inner-city Little League team in New York's worst neighborhood (An inspired allegory of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. I kid you not!) and his passionate love affair with a Vermont congresswoman, played by a very funny Edie Falco.

I also laughed very hard at the shows where Tina Fey's Liz suspects that her neighbors across the hall are terrorists, (Hey, if we don't laugh, the terrorists win), when she invites her idol, a comedy writer played by Carrie Fisher, to be a guest writer on the show, and when her family comes for a visit.

I'm already looking forward to buying Season 2 on DVD. I might have to stop by the NBC store on my next trip to New York City to pick up a Kenneth the Page Talking Bobblehead. (With 12 catch phrases!) And there's a great interview with Tracy Morgan on the USA Today blog Pop Candy. Morgan has reached No. 18 on blogger Whitney Matheson's list of the Top 100 People of 2007.

Morgan, despite his spoiled, self-absorbed celebrity persona on "30 Rock," comes across in the interview as a pretty likable guy, and a very caring dad to his three sons. He tells Matheson that although there's some room for improv, the show is largely scripted. Despite the writers' strike, the cast members have been staying in touch. (They all went out for sushi last week).

About the strike, Morgan says, "We're family. We're just gonna ride it out, and we just hope it all gets resolved. We just wanna get back to making good TV, that's all we want to do. I just feel like we're being deprived, and somebody has to think about the humanity and get these people back to work. There's a lot of people out of work right now, and it's really devastating."

I hope the show can get back into production soon. If the first part of the season is any indication, I have a feeling that "30 Rock" is going to have a terrific second half.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The daily news

Now here's one of those stories that would be funny if it weren't so sad.

An article by Verne Gay in the Long Island newspaper Newsday quotes twentysomethings who are feeling adrift because the writers' strike has cut them off from their main source of news: "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart, which is airing repeats. "What Walter Cronkite was to their parents and grandparents, Comedy Central's Jon Stewart is to them."

A 25-year-old radio station disc jockey named Drew Applebaum admits to being "slightly lost." Applebaum says, "I've been going as far as listening to NPR on my way home." (Oh the horor, the horror. He makes it sound like punishment!) Applebaum depended on the show, and the equally popular "Colbert Report," for some of the shtick he does on his own morning-drive show.

And 19-year-old Dennis McElhone, who's studying to be a history teacher, says, "I'd rather see a comedic spin compared to a left or right spin" on some political story. "And watching them find the humor in world issues makes them a little more straightforward than trying to figure what every other [anchor] is thinking."

Then there's this statistic: Four years ago, when the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Center for the People and the Press studied how people got their news about politics, it found that 21 percent of those between the ages 18 and 29 learned most everything they knew about the political races from "The Daily Show." Only the category of cable news - everything on MSNBC, CNN and Fox News - outranked just this one single show.

Scott Keeter, director of Survey Research for The Pew Center, which has studied these viewers' habits, insists in the article that the influence of these shows has overstated. The twentysomethings quoted about their viewing habits, are "news omnivores," who feed their news diet from many sources.

Jeff Greenfield, the senior political correspondent for CBS News, says that programs like "The Daily Show" don't necessarily get their young audiences interested in the political process. "The heart and soul of these shows is to treat politics as a fundamentally dishonest enterprise [where] politicians are fools, liars and mountebanks. Stewart's stuff is extremely funny and pointed, but that's not likely to get people stimulated to go out and vote."

Ok, listen up people. There's nothing wrong with getting a good chuckle out of "The Daily Show." I enjoy it, and Jon Stewart is great at using humor to make some very valid points about politics. But as much as I love Jon Stewart, I think he'd be the first to admit that he's no Walter Cronkite.

Stewart and Colbert are not journalists. They're comedians, entertainers. Their primary purpose is to make you laugh, not to inform you about what's going on in your community, your state, your country or your world. If they do, that's great. But I have to admit I'm a little concerned about a generation that considers them their main source of news.

I hope Drew is enjoying NPR enough to consider listening even after the writers' strike ends. I'm sure he's finding it informative and at times, even funny. Who knows, maybe he'll even contribute a few bucks when the next pledge drive rolls around.

Update: The New York Times reports that Stewart and Colbert will return to their shows on Jan. 7, without writers. The article says that the two hosts will have to improvise their monologues, and booking guests may be difficult because some entertainers and presidential candidates won't cross a picket line.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Smithsonian stories

Last week I mentioned in passing that the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History is my favorite museum in the whole world. That prompted a nice e-mail from Pamela Caragol Wells, the producer of a new series called "Stories from the Vaults" that takes viewers behind the scenes at the Smithsonian museums. It's hosted by Tom Cavanagh, an actor known for his roles on "Ed" and "Scrubs."

I've been a huge fan of the Smithsonian ever since my first visit to Washington, D.C., some 30 years ago, when I was in high school. I've been to almost all of the museums more than once, and I've loved them all. While the American History Museum is closed for renovations until next summer, they're all worth repeated visits. I can't think of a better way to spend a day in our nation's capital.

Until that first visit, I'd viewed museums as somewhat somber, stuffy places, filled with ancient paintings and sculptures. But the Smithsonian, especially the American History Museum, changed all that.

I'm a big American history buff, and I love the way the museum tells the story of this country from so many different vantage points, from the lives of presidents and celebrities to the struggles and dreams of average, everyday people, as it did in an exhibit called From Field to Factory that documented the migration of African-Americans from the South to the North before World War II. And best of all, like all the Smithsonian museums, admission is free.

My first visit to Washington came during the Bicentennial, and there was a terrific exhibit at the American History Museum called "A Nation of Nations" that took visitors through all of the various cultures that together make up the United States. I've always loved the collection of pop culture artifacts, like Dorothy's ruby red slippers from "The Wizard of Oz," Kermit from "Sesame Street" and Jerry Seinfeld's Puffy Shirt. Plus, the museum hasn't shied away from highlighting the serious parts of American history, including the fight against polio and the fight for civil rights.

One visit I made a decade ago will always stay with me. I'd just come from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and literally the first thing I saw when I walked into the American History Museum was a section of the Woolworth's lunch counter, from Greensboro, N.C., where four African-American college students sat down on Feb. 1, 1960, and asked for service. That simple, courageous act helped ignite the movement challenging segregation throughout the South. Here it was 15 years after the Holocaust and we still hadn't understood the evil of racism. It was a sad and powerful reminder that the struggle against bigotry is an ongoing one. I'm glad that this important artifact from American history, pictured above, is preserved at the Smithsonian.

The Smithsonian has many fascinating, quirky, important tales to tell, and I think "Stories from the Vaults" is a great way to make them come alive. The show airs on the Smithsonian Channel HD, which is available on DirectTV HD. While I don't have that system, I watched clips of the show on YouTube. The topics include Phyllis Diller's joke file, (50,000 of them in an immense steel filing cabinet), flesh-eating beetles, the first videogame, the marine biology collection donated by author John Steinbeck, nature photographer Ansel Adams, taxidermy and ants.

The show is a really interesting look at the back rooms where visitors don't normally venture. Caragol Wells says the idea is to be funny and informative, and "Stories from the Vaults" definitely is both. Cavanagh is a witty, affable host as he chats with the scientists and curators to get the story behind the story of artifacts in the collections. The clips brought back many great memories of hours spent walking through the Smithsonian. I can't wait to go back.

Monday, December 17, 2007


The last time I saw Amy Adams in a movie she was so sweet and appealing as Ashley, the childlike and very pregnant Southerner in 2005's "Junebug." Adams received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for that role.

In Disney's "Enchanted," Adams has moved up a few notches on the social scale: she's Giselle now, a princess-in-waiting. But her character still has that same sweetness, although this time with a sense of wonder that comes from being a princess out of water. James Marsden plays Edward, her Prince Charming, with a great combination of sincerity, wit and royal entitlement. Marsden's been terrific in everything I've seen him in lately, including as teen dance show host Corny Collins in "Hairspray."

The first movie I ever remember seeing was from Disney - 1963's take on the legend of King Arthur, "The Sword in the Stone." So I was delighted that "Enchanted" starts off with a terrific animated sequence showing how Giselle met her Prince Charming. It reminded me of all those classic Disney animated movies. Eric at Man in Chair has the rundown on the references, along with all the Broadway stars, that crop up in "Enchanted."

Before Giselle and Edward can marry, she's banished by the evil queen, a perfectly nasty Susan Sarandon, to a place where there are no happy endings, which turns out to be midtown Manhattan. Giselle is rescued from a driving rainstorm by cautious, straightlaced divorce lawyer Robert Philip, played by Patrick Dempsey, who has a 6-year-old daughter, Morgan, a very sweet Rachel Covey, and a girlfriend, Nancy, a sassy Idina Menzel.

Soon, everyone is in Manhattan looking for Giselle: Edward, the queen, the queen's henchman, a very funny Timothy Spall, and one incredibly industrious chipmunk, voiced by Kevin Lima, who also directed the film. A great running gag is how they all appear in New York, one after another, through a manhole cover in Times Square.

And let me just say, the city looks especially enchanting in this movie. There are great scenes of Times Square, Katz's Deli on the Lower East Side, Columbus Circle, and an extended song-and-dance number that takes place in Central Park. (I couldn't help but think how great it'll look on stage when Disney gets around to turning "Enchanted" into a Broadway musical. I hope they get Matthew Bourne, who did the wonderful choreography for "Mary Poppins.")

"Enchanted" is a really sweet, fun, engaging movie, especially for anyone who loves romantic comedies, or Disney or New York City. I'm even thinking about picking up a copy of the score by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, which recalls classic Disney tunes.

A large part of the credit goes to Adams. For all her innocence and naivete, she's also a princess with lots of pluck, determination and a take-charge attitude. (Although I could have done with far, far fewer computer-created rodents and insects in the scene where Giselle tidies up Robert's apartment).

I'm really looking forward to a couple of Adams' upcoming roles - the film version of the Tony and Pulitzer-winning play "Doubt," and "Julie and Julia," the real-life story of a woman who wrote a blog, and then a book, about working her way through Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." I've read the book, by Julie Powell, and I think Adams would be perfect in the part. Meryl Streep, who's also on tap to star in "Doubt," is supposed to play Julia Child.

I do have a couple of quibbles with "Enchanted." I did kind of wonder about the explanation for what happened to Robert's wife and Morgan's mother: apparently she just left them one day. Usually in this type of movie, the mother dies tragically young, like in "Bambi." It just seems like an odd plot choice for a movie aimed at children. Plus, I found the final battle between the queen and Giselle a little jarring. The movie starts with cute and cuddly animation straight out of "Bambi" and ends with a scary sequence that looks like it could have come from "Godzilla."

Still, I have to admit that I felt like crying at the end, as Giselle teaches Robert a thing or two about the power of love. I don't think I'm giving anything away by revealing that despite the queen's assertion, New York is a place for happy endings.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

So sorry to see you go

I know I'm way too old to be a "Spring Awakening" fangirl, but what can I say? I love this show. When I saw the Tony winner for best musical, in July, all I could think was, this is how people must have felt when they first saw "Hair" on Broadway in 1968. Spring Awakening is just so exciting, so imaginative in the way it tells its story.

And what an energetic, talented cast. At times, I felt like I was at a concert in a little club somewhere discovering a great new band. I loved the way rock music is used to tell a story that takes place more than a hundred years ago, with the anachronisms of modern lighting and microphones.

When I saw the song list, with titles like "Totally F***ed" and "The Bitch of Living," I wondered how they'd fit into the show, whether they'd be raunchy just for the sake of being raunchy. But the way the cast performed them, they were funny and they worked perfectly and they were really exciting to watch.

At first, I didn't think I'd be all that interested in teenage angst and sexual awakening in 19th century Germany, but I was very moved by the story. I felt for these teenagers and what they were going through and the pressures they faced. While some parts were fairly predictable, I think even a predictable story can pack an emotional punch if you care about the characters. And by the end, I was crying.

"Spring Awakening" was the last show in my summertime marathon of seven musicals in five days. Maybe part of it was reaching the end, but I left the theater feeling drained and exhilarated and wanting to listen to the music again.

My seat was near the rear of the orchestra in the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. I thought afterward that it would be great to see "Spring Awakening" up close, maybe even from the onstage seats, right next to John Gallagher Jr. So of course I'm a little sad that today was the Tony winner's final performance as troubled schoolboy Moritz, but I'm so glad I had a chance to see him in the role.

In addition to being a terrific actor, singer and musician, the 23-year-old Gallagher is also a tremendously gracious young man. Although I'm sorry to see him leave the "Spring Awakening," I wish him all the best with whatever he tackles next. While his band, Old Springs Pike, has concerts coming up this winter, I hope there's more acting in Gallagher's future as well.

I had the pleasure of meeting Gallagher at the stage door after a Wednesday matinee. He was the last cast member to come out. A large part of the very large crowd had left, and I was so disappointed because I thought I'd missed him. But eventually he appeared, smiling and looking like he'd just showered. He chatted and posed for pictures with everyone as made his way down the line.

I'd already arranged with the person next to me that we'd take each other's pictures. When Gallagher got to us, I congratulated him on his well-deserved Tony and said we'd each like an autograph and to have our pictures taken with him. He beamed and said sweetly, "Well, I'd like to have my picture taken with you." Ok, let me just say, Mr. and Mrs. Gallagher, if you're reading this, you raised a very polite son! It was a such a memorable way to end my trip to New York.

While Gallagher has moved on, and Christine Estabrook, who plays the female adult roles, is leaving this week, much of the original cast remains with "Spring Awakening." The equally talented Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele, who portray lovers Melchior and Wendla, have extended their stay through May 18. (I think Michele has an absolutely gorgeous voice). Replacing Gallagher will be film and television actor Blake Bashoff, making his Broadway debut. Tony nominee Kate Burton will replace Estabrook.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Wrestling with Angels

Last night, I watched the documentary on playwright Tony Kushner that's airing this month on PBS, "Wrestling with Angels." It's a really illuminating look at Kushner as a writer and as a person.

My introduction to his work came through the 2003 HBO miniseries of "Angels in America." I didn't actually have HBO at the time it aired, so while I was waiting for it to come out on DVD, I read the two plays that make up Angels: "Millennium Approaches" and "Perestroika."

While Kushner's work is about the AIDS crisis, it's not solely about that. In addition to the angels and the Mormons and Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg what I took away from it was a very thoughtful and perceptive examination of what happens when someone we love falls ill. How well do we handle it?

And I think the final scene, in front of the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, is so stirring and inspiring. It's not an ending about dying from a horrible disease, but rather about living with it, surrounded by people you love. There's a glimmer of hope and a vow not to be silent ever again.

The documentary, by Academy Award winner Freida Lee Mock, touches on most of Kushner's works. But it spends the most time on some of his more recent endeavors, including the play "Homebody/Kabul," the Holocaust-themed opera "Brundibar" and the musical drawing on his Louisiana childhood, "Caroline, or Change." (There must have been a lot of cameras following Kushner at one point, because "Caroline, or Change" is also one of the shows featured in the documentary "ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway.")

Kushner wears his progressive politics on his sleeve, and he talks a lot about the political nature of his plays. We even see him going to Florida to ferry voters to the polls during the last presidential election. He's constantly talking about the need for the individual to take a stand and make a difference.

But it's the personal parts of the documentary that really fascinated me and gave me a fuller portrait of Tony Kushner than I'd ever had before. We see him getting around New York City on foot, by subway and cab, with a backpack slung over his shoulder. We visit his house in the country, and the little shed where he writes. We're guests at the wedding of Kushner and his partner, Mark Harris, in a traditional Jewish ceremony. (I caught sight of Marian Seldes for a brief second in a corner of the screen. That woman is everywhere!)

I especially loved the look at his small-town Southern Jewish roots. Kushner talks a lot about his family in the documentary. We travel with him to his hometown of Lake Charles, La. We see the small brick synagogue where he had his bar mitzvah and the lumberyard that his family owned. We meet his father and his brother.

I think that the title can work on two levels. Obviously, it's an allusion to "Angels in America." But I thought of another possible allusion. In the Book of Genesis, Jacob spends all night wrestling with a mysterious being, or an angel. He's given the name Israel, meaning one who has struggled or wrestled with God and prevailed.

Since then, the idea of wrestling with God has in many ways been at the core of Jewish identity. To me, it's not simply a religious struggle, but a struggle to understand the world and your place in it.

Whether or not you agree with his politics, I think that as a person, and as a playwright, that is what Tony Kushner is doing. He comes across as a very sincere, likable person as he talks about all of his struggles: coming out to his parents and being true to himself as a gay man, what it means to be a good person and a good citizen, and what an individual can do to make the world a better place.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Can't stop the musicals

This has been an especially great couple of years at the movies for fans of musical theater, starting with last winter's "Dreamgirls," then "Hairspray!" over the summer, and now, "Sweeney Todd."

While the cinematic version of "Sweeney Todd" is too intense for my tender sensibilities, there's no question that I'll be heading to my local multiplex in July to see the next stage-to-screen movie, "Mamma Mia!"

I'm really looking forward to seeing Meryl Streep, America's greatest living actress, singing and dancing on a sun-drenched Greek island - a perfect combination! Not to mention costars Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Julie Walters.

In the Telegraph, Charles Spencer has an interview with three of the creative forces behind "Mamma Mia!" Judy Craymer, the producer who had the idea of turning Abba's hits into a stage show, Catherine Johnson, the writer, and Phyllida Lloyd, the director,

Craymer talks about getting Meryl Street for the movie: "She saw the show on Broadway and wrote us a fan letter saying what a great time she'd had. And it all happened rather fast. We spoke to her agent, her agent spoke to her, and apparently she said: "Mamma Mia!?? I AM Mamma Mia!?" and the next thing we knew, we were on a plane to see her, like over-excited teenagers."

Lloyd says that Streep threw herself into the project. "She told us she thought the role would really stretch her - it gave her a chance to be a singer, a rocker, a mother, and to use her looney-tunes farce skills."

And Johnson adds that she's pleased she got to keep the sole writing credit on the movie. She tells Spencer, "I kept expecting to be replaced at any moment by David Mamet or somebody."

I saw the stage version of "Mamma Mia!" at Broadway's Winter Garden Theatre in July and I had a great time. It was the first show in my sumertime musicals marathon - seven tuners in five days.

You know how sometimes a little snippet of music just pops into your head? Well, although I was never a huge ABBA fan, the songs have definitely stayed with me - every once in awhile I'll find myself thinking about a line from "I Have A Dream," "Dancing Queen" or "Honey Honey."

"Mamma Mia!" is light and sweet and the story is told with a lot of humor and great pop tunes. I loved Carolee Carmello as mom Donna Sheridan, and Carey Anderson as daughter Sophie, who invites three of her mother's ex-flames to her wedding, in hopes of discovering which one is her father.

(Although I have to say that no one in the show looks like the dark-haired bride on the original cast recording).

And the show has had incredible staying power, spawning productions around the world. "Mamma Mia!" has played more than 2,500 performances since opening on Broadway on Oct. 18, 2001, and manages to fill nearly 90 percent of its seats every week - without resorting to stunt casting.

Although I do wonder how parents explain the plot to their children - a woman who invites three men, one of whom is likely her father, to her wedding: "Why doesn't she know which one is her daddy?"

Too much gore?

No, I'm not talking about Al, although he has been in the news a lot lately. I'm talking "Sweeney Todd."

Along with "Assassins," which I'm not likely to have a chance to see anytime soon, "Sweeney Todd" is my favorite Stephen Sondheim score. I've seen the Broadway musical on dvd with an awesome, hilarious Angela Lansbury as the twisted piemaker Mrs. Lovett. This fall, I had a chance to see "Sweeney" on stage, when I took in the tour of director John Doyle's imaginative production.

I'm not a big Tim Burton or Johnny Depp fan. (I liked "Ed Wood" and "Edward Scissorhands," but the Burton/Depp collaboration on "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" was a little too dark, and Depp's Willy Wonka was a little too weird for my taste). Still, I'd be looking forward to the movie version of "Sweeney Todd." There's just one problem: I'm very squeamish when it comes to violence. If there's not too much blood and gore, and it's not to graphic, I'll be fine. I can always take my glasses off and cover my eyes for a minute.

But I've had my doubts about whether I could take a realistic silver-screen version of "Sweeney Todd." After viewing the movie's opening credits on, I'm beginning to think I'll have to wait a few months for it to come out on dvd.

Ok, I know what you're thinking: exactly what did I expect? After all, it's a story about a barber who slits the throats of his customers and a baker who uses some unsavory ingrediants in her meat pies.

Well, it's not exactly the blood and guts that attracted me in the first place. Like I said, I enjoy the score, the Victorian England setting and the humor. And I admit that Burton and Depp's version may be closer to the Grand Guignol tradition of macabre, grisly entertainment that Sondheim envisioned.

I guess I'll buy the soundtrack and wait a few months to see Johnny Depp as Sweeney and Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett. Until then, I have Angela Lansbury on dvd to keep me company.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A New York state of mind

In the rivalry between Boston and New York, it was never a contest. I lived in Boston for five years, and it was the first big city I got to know and love. As Carrie Bradshaw says, I'm a bona fide city girl. But New York City was always a mystery. It seemed dangerous and intimidating. I remember seeing "The Out of Towners," with Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis as the Ohio couple whose trip to the Big Apple goes horribly wrong, and it left an impression.

I knew that crime was way down and Times Square had been cleaned up and New York is now one of the safest cities in the country, but I was still a little apprehensive before my April trip to see Kevin Spacey on Broadway in "A Moon for the Misbegotten."

Well, with the Red Sox safely in possession of another World Series trophy and three trips to New York City in the past six months under my belt, I can admit this without sounding like a turncoat: there's simply no comparison. I'm not going to switch sports allegiances, and I'm not talking about quality of life or cost of living or job opportunities. But speaking simply as a tourist, given a choice, I'd pick New York City over Boston.

New York completely won me over. It's now my favorite city in the world. I hate to shatter any cherished sterotypes, but New Yorkers are incredibly friendly. When I asked for directions, almost everyone was helpful and gracious. I felt safe everywhere I went. I didn't have any problem navigating the subway. In fact, people went out of their way to be helpful when I was having trouble figuring out how to add money to my subway farecard. I loved every minute of my three trips to the city this year. (With the possible exception of the 45-minute cab ride from Penn Station while the driver tried to find my hotel in Times Square). I can't believe I was ever intimidated or unsure about going by myself.

So, in honor of my appearance on "Late Night with David Letterman," here are my Top 10 things to do in New York City:

1) See a show on Broadway. Sure, there are cities with great things to do during the day. But no other city has as much to do at night, so much entertainment packed into the space of 10 blocks. Broadway has stories and spectacles that will appeal to you no matter what your interest. I've seen more than a dozen plays and musicals, and there's a dozen more I want to see. And there's even more just off Broadway. I was a little nervous about the prospect of walking through Times Square by myself after a show, but I needn't have worried. I felt completely safe and comfortable. It's great to know that I can walk around all day sightseeing, treat myself to a nice dinner, then experience some terrific theater at night before walking back to my hotel. It's my number one thing to do in New York and it's what makes New York my favorite city in the world.

2) Take a long walk. This was my first long walk in Manhattan, and it's my favorite. Start at Macy's, on 34th Street, the world's largest department store. Then make your way up Broadway, past Columbus Circle. Take a short detour to Lincoln Center for a glimpse of the fountain made famous in movies such as "Moonstruck." (If you're hungry, stop at the Whole Foods at Time Warner Center). Then continue along Central Park West to the Museum of Natural History. Along the way, you'll pass the Dakota, John Lennon's last home. Nearby is Strawberry Fields, a memorial to Lennon in Central Park. Cross the park and walk down Fifth Avenue for some window-shopping. Then stop at Rockefeller Center for a bird's-eye view of the city from the Top of the Rock, and head back to Times Square. It's a terrific 5-mile walk through midtown Manhattan.

3) Visit a part of history. It's said that more than 40 percent of Americans can trace their ancestry through Ellis Island. With the current political debate, there's no better time to visit the place where the American dream began for generations of European immigrants. There's a self-guided audio tour through the Great Hall, where immigrants were processed. While it was obviously an anxious process for millions of people, I was surprised that only 2 percent were denied entrance to the United States. It's a fascinating place. The ferry to Ellis Island stops at the Statue of Liberty. Despite seeing it in countless pictures and movies over the years, I was struck by how beautiful it is up close.

4) Go to Brooklyn, and then come back. I've been to Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx, but I'd never been to Brooklyn, and I've always wanted to go. I've never been crazy about heights, but I really wanted to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, and I'm so glad I did. It was a terrific experience. The walkway is in the middle of the span, above traffic, so I was fine. I took the subway there, then walked back. The view of the Manhattan skyline is breathtaking and the bridge is crowded with walkers and cyclists. It's only a mile each way, but don't rush. Take a leisurely stroll. If you're there alone, people are happy to take your picture, and I took a few pictures of other walkers in return.

5) Stroll through a neighborhood. Times Square is fine, but no one really lives there. I loved venturing out to some other parts of the city. Even going a couple blocks away, to Hell's Kitchen, will give you a different view of the city. I've walked around the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side, explored my non-existent roots on the Lower East Side, and sat in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village and thought about what it would have been like to go to NYU.

6) Spend an afternoon at a museum. I love museums, especially on rainy days. Too often, I just race through them so I can cram as much sightseeing into daylight hours as possible. But when it's raining, there's really no incentive to make a mad dash. I spent a great rainy day slowly going through each floor at the Museum of Modern Art, checking out Andy Warhol's soup cans and Marilyn Monroe, along with the Picassos and Cezannes and Van Goghs. New York doesn't have my favorite museum in the world - that distinction belongs to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, which is closed for renovations until next summer. And unlike the Smithsonian, New York's museums aren't free. Still, there's a lot to see, and I've only scratched the surface. So far, I've also been to the Museum of Natural History, the Guggenheim, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My to-do list includes the Whitney, the Museum of the Moving Image, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace. I'm sure there are many more I'm leaving out.

7) Be on television. When I went to New York in April, I didn't intend to be on television, but it just worked out that way. I was walking by the Ed Sullivan Theater, home of "The Late Show with David Letterman," when I saw that tickets were available for that afternoon's tapings. The whole process took the better part of an afternoon, and I don't know whether I'd do it again - there are just too many other things to see - but I'm so glad I did it once. It was pretty exciting, and when the camera panned the audience, well, I didn't get a close-up, but if you look quickly, I'm there. Here's information about how to be part of a tv audience.

8) Treat your palate. I love a city where the default bread is rye and the delis have Eastern European Jewish staples that I've heard about but would never dream of eating, like kasha varnishkes. This is New York, be adventurous. Try to avoid the national chains. Eat something ethnic. Get a real, water-boiled bagel, a schmear of cream cheese and lox. Some of my favorites are Peanut Butter & Co., a quirky little restaurant in Greenwich Village; Xing, in Hell's Kitchen, a great place for a pre-theater meal, and for a splurge on some delicious seafood, the Blue Fin, at The W Times Square hotel. I've been there three times by myself and each time, the wait staff has been incredibly kind and attentive.

9) Go to a movie set. New York has been the setting for countless movies and television shows, and it's fun to visit some of those locations. I had lunch at Katz's Deli in the Lower East Side, where Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan filmed the orgasm scene in "When Harry Met Sally." Katz's, a Lower East Side tradition since 1888, is known for its slogan, "Send a salami to your boy in the Army." Someday, I still want to make it to Tom's Restaurant, whose facade is featured in "Seinfeld."

10) Pay your respects at ground zero. The place where the World Trade Center's twin towers once stood is a giant construction site, but it's still a sobering, important place to visit. "Post No Bills" has been stenciled in white around the walkway, and people from all over the world have written messages of support on them. For me, the most emotional part was walking over to the fire station across the street, where there's a memorial to the firefighters who were killed on Sept. 11. I came to ground zero from Ellis Island, and I couldn't help but think how many people descended from immigrants who came through Ellis Island had been killed on that horrific day.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Around the world

This geography game, the Traveler IQ Challenge, comes via Fimoculous. You can test your knowledge of U.S. capitals, major cities, and world cities and capitals. I did very well on U.S. capitals, fair on world capitals. The goal is to click on a map to identify the location, and the faster you do it, and the closer you get, the more points you score. The difficulty increases with each round of the game. It's pretty addictive - and educational.

Monday, December 10, 2007

My year of living theatrically

It's doubtful I'll get to the theater again before the end of 2007, so here's my tally - 30 shows in 12 months. (Interestingly, the list is about evenly divided between plays and musicals). Not bad when you consider my total for 2006 was 1; for 1999-2005, 0.

Here's the list, in roughly chronological order:

1) Wicked
2) Our Town
3&4) A Moon for the Misbegotten
5) Curtains
6) Frost/Nixon
7) LoveMusik
8) Deuce
9) Hairspray
10) Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life
11) Parade
12) The Clean House
13) Mamma Mia!
14) 110 in the Shade
15) Mary Poppins
16) The Color Purple
17) Gypsy
18) Grey Gardens
19) Spring Awakening
20) The 39 Steps
21) The Elephant Man
22) August: Osage County
23) The Farnsworth Invention
24) Rock 'n' Roll
25) Cyrano
26) The Receptionist
27) Young Frankenstein
28) Sweeney Todd
29) The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
30) Memory House

I saw national tours and productions by local theater companies. I traveled to Boston and Broadway. I sat in tiny theaters of a few hundred seats and massive houses of several thousand. The ticket prices ranged from $15 to more money than I care to admit in public.

While I enjoyed some shows more than others, I always enjoyed the experience of going to the theater and losing myself in a story for a couple of hours. There are some shows I liked better than others, but I don't regret seeing a single one. There's so much that I loved, I can't even narrow it down to a Top 5 or a Top 10.

But I do want to single out "Wicked." It was my first trip to the theater this year. I saw it in January, on tour, sitting up in the mezzanine, and I was totally captivated by the music and the characters and the story. I walked out of the theater wanting to see more. It set the stage for a an absolutely terrific, unforgettable year.

"Wicked" works so well on so many different levels: as an homage to one of the most beloved and quotable movies ever (even if the flying monkeys did scare the heck out of me as a kid!), as a political allegory and as an exploration of the trials and tribulations of adolescence. After nearly a year, "For Good" still chokes me up. The most stirring love song in this musical is about the enduring nature of friendship. How great is that!

Three months later, I was sitting in the audience at my first Broadway show. I'll never forget seeing Kevin Spacey walk out on stage at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre about 30 minutes into "A Moon for the Misbegotten." He's one of my favorite actors and suddenly there he was, so close I could have reached out and touched him. (Don't worry, I didn't!) It was thrilling. I can't even compare it with seeing him on television or in a movie.

There's nothing quite like the experience of watching a group of people, in some cases standing only a few feet away, tell you a story. Kevin Spacey compares it to walking a tightrope every night - anything can happen. There are no car chases or elaborate special effects, simply the power of words, the beauty of the human voice, the gracefulness of movement.

Regardless of where I sat or how much I paid for my ticket, or the hype or whether or not I recognized the actors on stage, in the end it really came down to the story - whether or not it grabbed me, engaged me, resonated with me, held my interest, made me smile or laugh out loud or cry. Once the show ends, that's it. I can't see it in exactly the same way ever again. It can only live on in my mind's eye. That's what makes the experience so unique and so powerful.

I've already got a good start on 2008 with tickets to the national tours of Rent, Spamalot, The Wedding Singer and The Drowsy Chaperone. I'm hoping the theater will take me back to Broadway, and to some new places as well.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Memory House

In February, I saw Susannah Flood give a terrific performance as Emily Webb in Trinity Repertory Company's production of "Our Town." Her mannerisms and speech perfectly embodied a teenage girl - the intelligence and curiosity, the awkwardness and insecurity.

Flood, who was then a student at the Brown University/Trinity Rep Consortium, has since earned her MFA and her Equity card. This month, she's back at Trinity, again giving a memorable performance as a teenager, but this time, a 21st-century one in Kathleen Tolan's two-person play "Memory House."

It's New Year's Eve and Flood's Katia is a high school senior, a child of divorced parents who was adopted from Russia at a very young age. She arrives back at her mother's apartment after a visit to her father's house across town. Her father is a college professor and her mother, Maggie, played by 28-year Trinity veteran Anne Scurria, is a former dancer who now has an office job.

Katia has just a couple of hours to complete an essay for her college application and get it in the mail by midnight, and we're not altogether certain that's going to happen. Going away to college is a step that will change both Maggie's and Katia's lives and over the course of the play, they examine their past, present and future.

The set, designed by Eugene Lee, consists of a small, sparsely furnished living room strewn with books and papers and a kitchen with a working oven. As the audience watches, Scurria makes a blueberry pie - kneading the dough, rolling out the crust, pouring in the filling, and placing it in the oven. We can see and smell it baking. It's a great device because it gives Maggie something physical to do.

Katia's essay has to be in the form of a memory house, a place where she stores her thoughts, experiences and recollections of her past. But she's troubled that she doesn't remember enough about her past, before she was adopted. Without those memories, she's unsure of her place in the world, and it makes her normal teenage sense of insecurity even worse.

She's at a point where she's anxious about her future, questioning what she wants to do with the rest of her life, wondering how she can make a difference in the world. Rather than seeing her parents as the people who rescued her from a dreary, loveless life in an orphanage, she sees them as privileged Westerners who snatched her away from the country where she was born.

That sense of being adrift manifests itself as anger toward her mother. Flood rolls her eyes, bites her lip and sulks as she slouches around their apartment. She talks about her "real" mother and expresses a desire to go back to Russia. She almost taunts her mother as she asks why she gave up doing something she loved, how her father's life seems so much better and happier, and wonders whether she should even go to college.

Scurria also gives a wonderful performance, imbuing Maggie with an abundance of humor, patience and common sense. Maggie is obviously hurt by her daughter's barbs, and makes the occasional sharp retort. She's clearly exasperated by Katia's procrastination over the college application. But overall, Scurria's portrayal is as warm and homey as the pie baking in the oven.

Tolan writes in a very believable, true-to-life way about the relationship between mother and daughter. There's a danger of having "Memory House" turn into a dialogue between a sullen adolescent and her exasperated mother. But Katia's questions about her past give the character a great deal of poignancy. Flood and Scurria make both Katia and Maggie very sympathetic and likable.

Trinity Rep's artistic director, Curt Columbus, says that "Memory House" examines questions of identity, both personal and national, and questions about how to create a "home" when the rules of "homemaking" have changed. Tolan has created "something which speaks to the uncertainty of the modern world in general, and of the turbulence in modern family dynamics within that world."

Katia and Maggie spend most of the play arguing in a way that will surely resonate with anyone who's ever been a parent or a child. Scurria and Flood really make this relationship work. By the end of the play you realize that despite the turbulence, these are two people who truly love each other and care about each other.