Sunday, August 31, 2008

The mighty Mississippi

I can't believe my visit to Minneapolis is only days away. One of the things I'm most looking forward to in the Twin Cities next weekend is a chance to see the Mississippi River.

Even though I've been a lifelong American history buff, I've never seen the body of water that has played such a great role in our nation's history and popular imagination - in music and literature and theatre.

(Since I've been to California, I guess technically, I've flown over the Mississippi River, but I don't really think that counts.)

The Mississippi, the second-longest river in the United States, starts its journey at Lake Itasca, in northwestern Minnesota, and flows 2,340 miles to New Orleans before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.

Like most Americans who didn't actually grow up near the river, I probably first became aware of the Mississippi in school, when I learned about the Louisiana Purchase. In 1803, Thomas Jefferson negotiated the purchase from France of a vast swath of land west of the river, about a quarter of what comprises the United States today.

In high school, I read Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. While the novel, published in 1884, has been controversial because of its depictions of black people and use of racial epithets, Huckleberry Finn is noteworthy for its description of life along the Mississippi. Jim, the escaped slave who accompanies Huck on his journey down the river, has been criticized as a stereotype but also praised as a heroic and ultimately sympathetic character.

Two recent novels put a new spin on the story: Finn, by Jon Clinch, and My Jim, by Nancy Rawles.

In 1999, a television and radio series produced by the Smithsonian and aired on PBS, called River of Song, documented all of the different styles of music you can hear along the river. It's pretty amazing to consider: from rock 'n' roll in Minneapolis, soul in Memphis, bluegrass in the Farm Belt, to the blues in the Mississippi Delta.

Of course, the Mississippi has also been fertile ground for musical theatre.

The river is the setting for Show Boat, based on the novel by Edna Ferber, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. Show Boat opened on Broadway in 1927 and ran for 527 performances, closing in 1929. Like Huckleberry Finn, Show Boat has also been controversial for its depiction of African-American characters, as well as for some of its lyrics. In recent revivals, those lyrics have sometimes been altered to be less offensive.

The musical version of Huckleberry Finn, Big River, opened on Broadway in 1985 and ran for 1,005 performances. It won seven Tony awards, including Best Musical and Best Score, for composer Roger Miller. A new production of Big River opens Sept. 26 at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn., and runs through Nov. 30.

As Hurricane Gustav bears down on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, I can't help but think about the river's potential for destruction. My thoughts are certainly with people there. But I also know that the Mississippi has been a powerful cultural force in American history, and I'm looking forward to seeing where it all begins.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Obama and the bully pulpit

It was a day late, but last night I finally had a chance to listen to Barack Obama's entire acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. A few days ago, I mentioned President Lyndon Johnson's use of the bully pulpit on civil rights. What struck me about Obama's speech is that he did the same thing, especially in this passage:

"I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in the hospital and to live lives free of discrimination."

Too often when discussing gay marriage the opponents use this scare tactic: it'll harm families and children. Of course, that argument is ridiculous and disgusting and hateful. Obama turned the debate on its head: it's not about this supposed "threat" to heterosexual families, it's ensuring rights for gay and lesbian families.

In one sentence, Obama cut through the fear and bigotry and got to the core of the matter: it's about something as basic as being able to ensure that you can visit your loved one in the hospital. And the fact is, it's just a lot easier to do that when you can simply say, "That's my spouse in the emergency room."

I was moved when Obama referred to "our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters." Like Johnson did with the struggle to ensure voting rights for African-Americans, he used language not to divide us as a nation, but to bring us together, not to take away anyone's civil rights, but to expand civil rights to include more Americans.

Obama's speech was a bit long and tended a bit toward the policy wonk at times. He's been accused of being more style than substance, so I understand why he took that route. But I thought his conclusion, when he referred to Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech 45 years ago to the day, was inspiring:

"The men and women who gathered there could've heard many things. They could've heard words of anger and discord. They could've been told to succumb to the fear and frustrations of so many dreams deferred.

"But what the people heard instead -- people of every creed and color, from every walk of life -- is that, in America, our destiny is inextricably linked, that together our dreams can be one.

"We cannot walk alone," the preacher cried. "And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back."

Thursday, August 28, 2008

My favorite Obama supporters

The Democratic National Convention winds down tonight, with Barack Obama giving his acceptance speech at Denver's Invesco Field - on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, no less.

While Obama has a long list of celebrities who've endorsed his bid to become president, including musicians, actors, athletes and talk-show hosts, I want to give a shoutout to my favorites, my friend Doug Lyon's mom and dad, Iowa dairy farmers Joe and Norma "Duffy" Lyon. (No offense, Oprah!)

I've never met Doug's parents, or even been to the Hawkeye State, but his mom is famous for the butter sculptures she created each year for decades at the Iowa State Fair. (She sculpted the bust of Obama pictured above). Last year, Lyon taped a radio ad endorsing Obama, which you can listen to here. There's also a video the Obama campaign taped at the Lyon family's farm.

Some questioned how well Obama would fare in Iowa, a state with a black population of less than 3 percent. But people met him, listened to him talk about his background, his values and his stand on the issues, and enough of them liked what they heard to give him a victory in the state's Democratic caucus in January.

It's all too easy to have preconceived notions about people based on where they live, their occupation, their age, their race or ethnic background, their faith or who they love. At times, I've probably been guilty of some of that, too. We focus a lot of attention on the things that divide us as Americans, but there's much, much more that unites us.

Sure, things could have gone the other way, Iowa Democrats could have disagreed with his stand on the issues, and that would have been fine. That's what democracy is about, after all. But the important thing is, they judged Barack Obama on the content of his character. No matter what happens in November, I hope that's what we all do.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

One for the history books

Some people have the Olympics, but if you're interested in American history and politics, there are more important quadrennial events - the Democratic and Republican conventions. And the roll call of the states is the most exciting part. It's like swimming, gymnastics, basketball, track and field all rolled into one.

I love the roll call because it gives each state's delegation a moment in the spolight, a chance to whoop it up and holler and recite the litany of things that make their state great. (Sports teams and food are big). And believe me, in the roll call, every state is great. It's always fun and I usually learn a few things I didn't know. But this roll call at the Democratic National Convention was infused with so much history and symbolism.

Anderson Cooper at CNN got it right: this is a day for the history books. Barack Obama is nominated by acclimation as the Democratic nominee for president of the United States, the first African-American ever to be nominated by a major party.

The Massachusetts delegation, led by the state's first female Senate president, Therese Murray, and first African-American governor, Deval Patrick paid tribute to the Red Sox and the Patriots and the Celtics, but also to the state's heritage as a pioneer in education and universal health care and the first in equality in marriage in the United States. (Take note, Democrats. Don't soft pedal your commitment to equality for all Americans - trumpet it proudly.)

The Mississippi delegation referred to the state as the home of the blues and of the late Fannie Lou Hamer, an African-American who was a leader in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that challenged the state's all-white and anti civil-rights delegation to the 1964 Democratic Convention.

The New Hampshire delegation noted the historic nature of Hillary Clinton's victory in that state's primary. Clinton released her delegates earlier in the day, and recalling a line from Martin Luther King's dream "from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire," the state cast all of its votes for Obama.

Of course, there's always a lot of boosterism in the roll call: Kansas, a pioneer in wind energy and home of the Orange Bowl champion Jayhawks; Minnesota, the state that always has the highest voter turnout in the country; Louisiana, home of gumbo, jambalaya crawfish pie, Kentucky, home of next month's Ryder Cup golf tournament.

But my favorite was Maine: "The sun comes up in Maine first in the nation and we feel very honored to have that as our singular, whatever, privilege. As Maine goes - you've heard this before - so goes the nation."

The roll call used to occur in the evening, on national television. Now, sadly, it's banished to early evening on CNN and C-SPAN. It's really a shame because even though we know the outcome it's still got plenty of humor, poignancy and drama. And this year, for all Americans, no matter what your race or political viewpoint - history.

Politics and theatre Part II

Hey, someone had the same idea I did. Lisa Bornstein, theatre critic for Denver's Rocky Mountain News, is critiquing the Democratic National Convention. Thanks to The Mirror Up to Nature for providing the link.

From a theatre fan's perspective, Monday's post, is probably the most interesting. Here are some snippets:

"Everyone who has any part in the convention -- and several whose parts are ceremonial -- gets his or her moment during the daylight hours. It's as if you went to see a play but before the show started (that would be tonight's Ted Kennedy tribute and Michelle Obama's speech) you had to wait for the director, the dramaturge, the set designer and the assistant stage manager to get their moments on the stage."

"For every delegate sitting in the arena there were two or three people milling about in the aisles, conducting full-volume conversations. Wolf Blitzer and James Carville sit on the CNN stage conducting their punditry while former Ohio Rep. Mary Rose Oakar represented the Rules Committee. It's as if theater critics sat in the aisle and announced their opinions during the overture -- and no, we don't do that. I swear."

I wonder whether Dominic P. Papatola from the St. Paul Pioneer-Press or Graydon Royce from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune will be doing the same next week for the Republicans?

Frost/Nixon trailer debuts

Universal has released the trailer for Frost/Nixon, directed by Ron Howard. The movie is about the series of post-Watergate television interviews that the ambitious British talk-show host conducted with the disgraced former U.S. president. You can watch the trailer here.

Frost/Nixon, which opens Dec. 5, stars Michael Sheen as David Frost and Frank Langella as Richard Nixon. (That's Langella's Nixon waving and Sheen's Frost standing behind him, in the blue blazer). Both actors are reprising their roles from the widely praised play, which ran in London and on Broadway. Langella won a Tony award for best actor in a play.

British playwright and screenwriter Peter Morgan, who wrote Frost/Nixon, also wrote the screenplay for The Queen, which was my favorite movie of 2006. I'd read a lot of great things about Frost/Nixon from its London premiere. Next to A Moon for the Misbegotten, it was the one play I was most excited about seeing last year, on my first trip to Broadway.

I have to admit, I was slightly underwhelmed. As far as Morgan's work goes, I think I enjoyed The Queen more. The on-screen portraits of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Tony Blair seemed a little more fleshed out than the portraits on stage of David Frost and Richard Nixon.

For some reason, I thought Frost/Nixon would be more of the two men alone, parrying back and forth in their one-on-one interviews conducted in 1977, three years after Nixon's resignation. I didn't expect quite so much from the minor characters - "handlers" on both sides.

Still, I was fascinated by what the play had to say about the relationship between journalists and politicians, how each side uses the other, usually to mutual benefit. Both Frost and Nixon saw the interviews as a chance to repair their battered reputations, make a comeback and get a big payday.

But the play also shows how the two men were adversaries. On stage, I loved how Michael Sheen's body language evolved during the interviews. He obviously wants to get Nixon to talk about Watergate, the one subject that will make the interviews a success. Nixon, obviously, wants to talk about anything but Watergate. As many critics have observed, it's almost like watching a boxing match.

One of the points that Morgan is trying to make is that these interviews were groundbreaking. They were among the first, if not the first, "confessional" television interviews. Nowadays, public figures routinely go on television to confess their sins, ask for forgiveness or repair their reputations, often in connection with a book or movie they're promoting.

It's hard to tell from a trailer, but Langella's Nixon struck me as more cartoon-like than it did on stage. For all the accolades Langella received, it was actually the desperation of Michael Sheen's Frost as he tries to get Nixon to agree to the interviews, and to talk about Watergate, that fascinated me more. Maybe that's because I knew less about him.

I've seen a few musicals that have been transferred recently to the big screen - Hairspray, Sweeney Todd, Mamma Mia! But this will be the first movie version of a new play that I've seen on Broadway. I'm interested in what the transition to a different medium will look like - what's lost, what's gained and what stays pretty much the same.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Ladies Night for the Democrats

In honor of the 88th anniversary of women's suffrage, it's Ladies Night at the Democratic National Convention. (The official theme is Renewing America's Promise).

First, we heard from a parade of female elected officials. There's a lot of talk about economic issues, unemployment. In a few hours, unsuccessful presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton will have her turn at the podium. I feel slightly pandered to, but I like it!

Let me just say a few words about Hillary.

If I still lived in New York state when she first ran for the Senate, I'm not sure I would have voted for her - on principle. I just don't believe a person should be able to move to a state solely for the purpose of running for public office. I think you should know something about a state and its people and issues first, then run for office. Then, miraculously, we learn about her long-lost Jewish stepgrandfather. Coincidence? I think not!

By all accounts, she's been a good senator for New York, she's well-liked across the state, and I probably would have voted for her for reelection. And as a political reporter friend of mine once said in a shrugging, who cares kind of way, she has the carpetbagger's seat. Still, the way she got there just rubs me the wrong way.

Secondly, I don't buy the idea that she's such a great role model for women. I don't believe Hillary Clinton would be a senator from New York or a presidential candidate if she hadn't been first lady. If anything, the lesson of her life is a pretty traditional one for women: marry well and look the other way at your husband's infidelities.

I realize that she's got a large base of supporters and a lot of women do admire her. Hey, I'm not immune to the pull of group solidarity. I was excited when Walter Mondale picked Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate in 1984. I even went to hear her speak, and it was inspiring. I was excited in 2000, when Al Gore picked Joe Lieberman. (Although I'm not quite so excited about either one today).

So I understand. Really, I do. But it's time to move on.

Update 11:09 p.m. I thought Hillary Clinton gave a very gracious speech. In a nod to her supporters, she alluded to the historic nature of her campaign. But she also was unstinting in her praise for Barack Obama and made a forceful case for him. She's a great speaker, and she really fired up the crowd. Do you think her striking orange pants suit was a shoutout to Syracuse University?

Politics and theatre

At Media Nation, my friend Dan posted his thoughts on last night's speeches at the Democratic National Convention by Sen. Edward Kennedy and Michelle Obama. Some of the comments mentioned the whole scripted, stage-managed aspect of Obama's speech.

Well duh! Of course the political conventions are manufactured drama. People act like that's a big revelation. In a way, politics is theatre. Speechwriters, like songwriters and playwrights, make an appeal to people's emotions. The words they use, the images they construct, are all designed to conjure a specific picture in the minds of the audience.

Sure, it would be nice if people made their choices after spending hours watching C-SPAN and poring over position papers, but they don't. At least I don't. I mean, I know something about where a candidate stands on the issues, certainly. I read newspapers and magazines and catch snippets of speeches on television.

But honestly, I think it's less of a reasoned decision and more of a gut reaction. Whether or not you feel favorable toward a candidate, especially at the national level and especially when voting for president, depends on how the person hits you in the gut. It's a matter of which candidate you connect with.

I realize that there are more concrete aspects, too, like which candidate has a better plan for the economy or bringing the troops home from Iraq. Still, you can't really know how that candidate will act in every situation. But you can have a sense of which person shares your values, which candidate will do a better job protecting the things that are important to you.

And really, is it so different in the theatre? Isn't that part of what hits us with a play or musical that we love, because something about a performance or a subject resonates?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Democrats, Denver and history

I'm on the couch, in front of the tv, my feet up on the coffee table, watching CNN, ready for the Democratic National Convention, live from Denver. It's going to be an exciting four days of political theatre.

Whatever your views, this is truly a historic week in American history. Consider that in 1961, the year Barack Obama was born, black Americans living across a large swath of the southern United States were not permitted to vote. Now, a major political party is preparing to nominate an African-American candidate for president. It's something that no one could ever have contemplated when Obama was born.

Sometimes it's easy to throw up your hands and feel that one person can't make a difference. But in the 1960s, ordinary Americans, surmounting fear and acting with tremendous courage - black and white, college students and housewives - put aside their own personal safety to secure civil rights for black Americans. In the process, some of them were jailed, beaten and even killed. They were not afraid and they helped make this country better - for all Americans.

It was the sight of peaceful marchers being attacked by the police while walking from from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In a bit of incredible coincidence, ABC was showing Judgment at Nuremberg, a film about Nazi racism, that night in March 1965, and broke into the movie to broadcast the bloody images that horrified a nation.

A week after the violence, President Lyndon Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress and urged passage of the Voting Rights Act. (The picture is of Johnson signing the act into law, on Aug. 6, 1965.) It's a remarkable speech and a great example of using the office of the presidency as a bully pulpit. You can listen to the speech here.

In his speech, Johnson made the struggle for equal rights for black Americans a struggle for all Americans, invoking the words of the civil-rights anthem by saying, "We shall overcome." In the decades since the act was passed, the number of black elected officials has climbed from 300 to more than 9,100. Including, of course, the junior senator from Illinois.

If you want to read a compelling novel about the struggle, I recommend Freshwater Road, by Denise Nicholas. The protagonist is a young African-American woman from Michigan who ventures south during Freedom Summer, which brought hundreds of young, mostly white and Northern, volunteers to Mississippi in 1964 to try and register black voters.

Okay, enjoy the convention. I'm looking forward to Michelle Obama's speech tonight and an appearance by Sen. Edward Kennedy, who's undergoing treatment for a brain tumor. Obviously, that will be an incredibly emotional moment.

Update 9:38 p.m. Teddy just finished speaking. It was a poignant moment and he sounds like he's got plenty of fight left. His comment that "this November the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans" really got to me and I'm a little teary right now. Plus, he's absolutely right about health care for all Americans - it's a right, not a privilege. Here's a transcript of his speech.

Update 10:58 p.m. I thought Michelle Obama's speech was pretty good. It softened her, showed where she came from and served as a good introduction to her husband. She was passionate without sounding strident. She's not a forceful, stand-and-deliver type of speaker, her voice reaching a crescendo as she gets to an applause point. The fact that she seemed a bit nervous, that she didn't quite know what to do with her hands at times, was kind of endearing.

I think the part that will resonate with a lot of voters was at the end, when Barack Obama appeared by video hookup from Kansas City. Watching him interact with his wife and two young daughters was terrific. They seem like a close, loving family, people you'd want to have for your friends or neighbors. In a country where too many white people don't have friends or coworkers who are African-American, that may be the most important thing her speech accomplished. There'll be plenty of time for policy talk later. You can read her remarks here.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Kudos to Hallmark

This is a nice example of progress the American way - through the marketplace. Hallmark has a launched a new line of greeting cards designed to celebrate same-sex weddings. (The language inside will be neutral enough so that they can also be used for commitment ceremonies).

In addition to a card with two tuxedos on the cover, which I think is adorable, they also have ones that say "Partners in live and love," and "Two hearts. One promise." I pride myself on picking the perfect greeting card, so I can't wait until I have an occasion to send one!

The company added the cards after California joined Massachusetts as the only two states to permit gay marriage. "It's our goal to be as relevant as possible to as many people as we can," Hallmark spokeswoman Sarah Gronberg Kolell said.

The company said it made the move in response to consumer demand. The cards are being rolled out gradually this summer and will be widely available next year.

Of course, the bigots have already launched a boycott. No surprise there. In response, I will now be buying Hallmark products whenever I can, to show my support for the company. Maybe I can send someone there a thank-you card? Update: the blog Down with Tyranny suggests doing exactly that. (Just for good measure, you can buy a box of Crayola crayons, also owned by Hallmark, and use them to inscribe the card!) Here's the address:

Donald J. Hall, Chairman
Hallmark Cards Inc.
2501 McGee Trafficway
Kansas City, MO 64108

And here are some fun facts about Hallmark:

In 1917, company founder Joyce C. Hall and his brother, Rollie, invented modern wrapping paper when they ran out of colored tissue paper.

The Hallmark name refers to a symbol used by goldsmiths in London in the 14th century.

The slogan "When you care enough to send the very best," adopted in 1944, was created by a salesman who scribbled it on a cocktail napkin, which is now on display at company headquarters in Kansas City, Mo.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Happy birthday Marian Seldes!

Thanks to Sarah at Adventures in the Endless Pursuit of Entertainment, I know that Marian Seldes turns 80 today. (Sarah's created a great photo montage of Seldes' career and her lengthy list of stage credits.) Of course, I can't let the day go by without paying my own tribute to this legendary and gracious actress.

Before I made my first trip to Broadway last year, I was vaguely familiar with her name. I knew that her father, Gilbert Seldes, had been a famous literary critic and Kevin Spacey had mentioned in an interview that she was one of his teachers at Juilliard. But when I decided to see Deuce, I was much more excited about Angela Lansbury, who was making her return to Broadway after an absence of 25 years.

I know a lot of people felt that Terrence McNally's Deuce was sort of thin as a play, but I have to disagree. I enjoyed it so much that I wish it had lasted twice as long as its 90-minute running time. I was enthralled the entire time listening to Seldes' and Lansbury's characters, former tennis professionals who hadn't seen each other in decades.

Granted, there isn't much action. At one point, each of them stands up. But they're mostly just sitting in chairs, in a stadium, reacting to imaginary tennis balls whizzing back and forth as they watch a match at the U.S. Open. Occasionally, the play-by-play announcers chime in and an adoring fan stops by.

But most of the play is simply the two women - former doubles partners - sitting and talking, reminiscing about their lives. And I think that's what made it memorable for me. It's so basic - two people telling a story in front of an audience. It's the world they create with their words that's important, not car chases or special effects. And it's probably one of the most difficult acting jobs because all you have is language, in all of its nuances.

I felt so privileged to be in the company of these two great actresses. I was immediately caught up in their characters. It could easily have ventured into Grumpy Old Men territory and been completely jokey, but it didn't. It was sweet and funny. I liked hearing them talk about the old days, about how things had changed for women, for female athletes, about their hopes and disappointments.

I saw the play on a chilly April evening, and of course I waited at the stage door afterward. Despite the cold, both women were incredibly gracious and accommodating to the crowd that was waiting for them. They signed Playbills and Seldes went down the line, talking to people. They are troupers in every sense of the word.

While Lansbury signed her name in bold strokes, I was especially struck by the fact that Seldes, such a strong figure on stage, has such tiny, delicate handwriting. She signed her name using a blue ballpoint pen and when someone offered her a thick, black marker, she politely declined, saying that she couldn't possibly use it.

Three months later, when I was back in New York, I went to City Center to see Gypsy, and who should come down the aisle, taking a seat almost across from me, but Marian Seldes! I was a little hesitant about approaching her. I mean, yeah, I know you're supposed to leave actors alone when they're on their own time. But what can I say? I'm starstruck! I'm a fangirl!

People kept coming up to her before the show, at intermission, some of them staying way too long in my estimation. The woman barely had a moment to herself. But finally, I saw an opening. I figured, I'll go over for a quick hello and tell her how much I loved Deuce. What could it hurt, right?

I had just listened to a wonderful interview with Seldes on the American Theatre Wing's Downstage Center program. So I went over to where she was sitting, bent down, told her how much I'd enjoyed the interview and how much I loved her in Deuce. She smiled so sweetly, thanked me, and told me how much she loved being in Deuce. She started to talk about Gypsy, saying "Isn't it wonderful," and then she nuzzled my cheek. How awesome is that!

What I admire most about Seldes is that she has maintained such a deep commitment to the theatre over the decades and is so passionate and eloquent when she talks about her craft. At the same time, she's so gracious. And talk about a trouper - she was in Deathtrap during its entire Broadway run and never missed a performance in four years. That's 1,793 performances!

So, a very happy 80th birthday to Marian Seldes. Thank-you for a memorable performance on stage and being so welcoming off stage.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Teens take in bright lights, big city

I'll admit it, I love being a tourist and doing all of those touristy things. So this really struck a chord with me. I mean, is there anything more fun to read about than a first trip to New York City - and a first visit to a Broadway show? I don't think so, and I know you agree.

In a very sweet and funny story that reminded me a lot of my own New York adventures, Los Angeles Times reporter Christopher Reynolds writes about a group of 14 drama students from Verdugo Hills High School who were making their first trip to Manhattan.

They did the usual tourist things during their five days in New York: visited museums and landmarks, rode the subway and ate pizza, hot dogs and pretzels, slept three and four to a hotel room. (Well, the last thing is a little unusual).

But obviously, Broadway was a big draw for these kids, who had just put on their own production of Footloose. There were lots of theater-related activities arranged by their teachers - a stop at The Drama Bookshop, a tour of The Public Theater, an hourlong sitdown with Young Frankenstein's monster, Shuler Hensley, and of course, a few shows.

Their inaugural Broadway experience was a matinee of Young Frankenstein. "They exit the theater all grins, " Reynolds writes. "Megan Mullally's singing, the monster's soft-shoe dancing, the 34-year-old movie jokes by Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder, the deafening effects - the whole daffy, glossy package works for them."

Ok, granted, I was not as enthralled with Young Frankenstein, but I had to smile when I read that. Just being on Broadway, in the sweaty sea of humanity that is Times Square, is darned exciting. By the time you get inside the theatre, settle into your seat and the orchestra begins the first strains of the overture, well, it's pretty much sensory overload. A couple of hours later, and you're still on that adrenaline rush.

Then, changing gears completely for their second show, they take in Spring Awakening. Seeing a group of teenagers go through the anxiety of adolescence, with tragic results, is an intense, riveting experience. Two boys are weeping on the sidewalk afterward and have to be comforted by their classmates. (I know how they felt. When I saw it, I was crying, too, by the end.) One girl says, "That was the most amazing thing I've ever seen in my life."

Their third show is Xanadu, and of course, by now they're more discerning theatergoers, no longer Broadway babies. As Reynolds says, "they seem more demanding now than those newbies who stumbled off the plane three days ago." While they enjoy the Southern California references, overall, the musical gets mixed reviews from the group. One boy dismisses it outright as "just shtick." A girl rates it 7.86 out of 10.

The trip cost each student $1,600, which they raised through car washes, bake sales, rummage sales, some school district funding and the first bank of mom and dad. But apparently, it was worth every penny. Here's one 16-year-old girl's description at the end of their first day: "Something washed over me, and I connected to the spirit of the city. I sat in Virgil's BBQ a different person."

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Jumping on the Wall-E bandwagon

I know I'm a bit late with this, but I finally saw Wall-E, the latest movie from Pixar animation studios and writer/director Andrew Stanton, who also directed Finding Nemo.

I was going to wait until this one came out on DVD. But Vance at Tapeworthy gave Wall-E high marks in his summer movie roundup and said I really should see it on the big screen. He was right. It's a great movie with a very appealing main character and a graphic warning about the consequences of runaway consumption. In terms of illustrating the damage that we're doing to our environment, I think it hit me harder than An Inconvenient Truth. So thanks, Vance!

I'd read that the first 40 minutes or so contain almost no dialogue, and I was afraid I'd be a bit bored, but it was riveting. As the movie opens, we see an abandoned planet Earth filled with nothing but towering skyscrapers of garbage. It's visually stunning and more than a little disturbing. I mean, I'm sure my old newspapers and plastic water bottles are in there somewhere from the days before recycling.

Wall-E (For Waste Allocation Load Lifter - Earth Class,) is a robot, a tiny trash compactor who's spent the past 700 years cleaning up the huge piles of man-made waste that have overtaken the Earth and made it uninhabitable. Wall-E is a little beaten up, but he's a plucky and resourceful fellow, scavenging spare parts and recharging himself from the sun's rays.

Let me just say that Wall-E, who's voiced by Ben Burtt, is adorable. His performance is one of the best I've seen all year. In an almost totally nonverbal way, the creative team at Pixar has created a very likable, sympathetic character. And it's really fun to watch all of his human-like mannerisms: the way he cocks his head or interlocks his little mechanical hands.

You can tell that Wall-E leads a kind of a lonely existence. Except for his cockroach pal, he seems to be alone on the planet. (Hey, what's a Disney movie without a sidekick, right?) All of the other robots must have have broken down ages ago. All of the humans have been launched into space on a giant craft that resembles a cruise ship, where they grow corpulent and await word that Earth can once again sustain life.

One of Wall-E's greatest pleasures comes from watching a videotape of the 1969 film Hello Dolly!, especially the songs "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" and "It Only Takes a Moment." It's clear that Wall-E yearns for his own life to be filled with what he sees in movie - happiness, love, a little music and someone or something with whom he can hold hands.

Wall-E gets his wish when a robot named Eve, for Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator, is sent to to Earth from the spacecraft to search for signs of life. Wall-E sees Eve (voiced by Elissa Knight) and is immediately smitten.

As a machine, Eve is everything Wall-E isn't - sleek and polished as shiny new iPod, with glowing baby-blue eyes. Watching him fall in love is really very cute. What he wants to do more than anything is hold her hand, just like he's seen people do in Hello, Dolly! You're really rooting for him.

The second part of the movie, when Wall-E and Eve are on the spaceship and have to do battle with evil robots and foil nefarious plans and make daring escapes, didn't seem quite as magical to me. I still enjoyed it, but the movie just became more of a generic action/adventure story from that point.

But there's a lot of humor, especially from the character of the ship's captain, voiced by Jeff Garlin, and a live-action Fred Willard as the CEO of the corporation that's trying to clean up Earth. Plus, there are some nice shoutouts to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In one sense, Wall-E is kind of a dystopian movie. It presents a pretty grim picture of the future of our planet. So Wall-E and his infatuation with Hello Dolly! provide a nice counterpoint. I liked the way the movie focuses, in part, on the power of musical theatre to captivate us, to lift our spirits, to illuminate the best parts of the human condition.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Mamma Mia sing-along

A Mamma Mia! sing-along is coming to select theatres nationwide on Aug. 29. According to the Playbill article: The sing-along edition of the film will feature the lyrics to every musical number on the screen.

I know this type of thing has been done before with other movies, but I'm not usually interested in audience participation. I mean, the actors are getting paid plenty. Let them do all the work. My job is to sit back and enjoy. Plus, I just can't see myself going to a movie dressed up as a character from The Rocky Horror Picture Show or The Sound of Music. I'd rather be in my own clothes, thank-you very much.

I do remember going to a showing of Casablanca once where people in the audience would shout out the dialog along with Humphrey Bogart. (It was usually part of a double feature with Play It Again Sam, a line that, of course, we all know Bogart never uttered). Casablanca is my favorite movie of all time, so it was awesome. My second-favorite movie is The Graduate, and it would probably work just as well for that.

Anyway, I totally want to do this. Only it would have to be in a very packed movie theatre where my voice would be obscured in the crowd, because I can't sing. Not a note. In fact, I think I'm probably tone deaf. But it sure sounds like fun. No word on whether we'll be able to get out of our seats and dance, but I would be up for that, too!

Another one to mark on my movie calendar: From Sept. 24-28, the stage version of Rent will be broadcast at theatres nationwide. The Aug. 20 performance at Broadway's Nederlander Theatre is being filmed, along with the musical's final performance, on Sept. 7. You can sign up at The Hot Ticket to be notified when more information becomes available.

Rent, which opened on April 29, 1996, is closing on Broadway after more than 5,000 performances. I'd only seen the movie, but in January, I had a chance to see the show on tour.

Despite the passage of 12 years, and the advances made in treating HIV and AIDS, the poignant stories of people falling in love and struggling with illness give Rent a timeless quality. I found it very life-affirming and I'm glad I had a chance to see it on stage. And I'm glad the live-on-stage version is being preserved on film.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Theatre in my backyard

To welcome its new artistic director, Peter DuBois, and to celebrate its 27th season, Boston's Huntington Theatre Company is holding a special reduced-price ticket sale Aug. 19.

For that day only, you can buy $27 tickets for select performances of the first three shows of the 2008-2009 season: How Shakespeare Won the West, Boleros for the Disenchanted, and Rock 'n' Roll. Tickets will be available online from 9 a.m. to midnight, and by phone and in person from noon to 6 p.m.

I'm really looking forward to Richard Nelson's play How Shakespeare Won the West, which runs from Sept. 5 to Oct. 5. It's about a troupe of New York actors who seek fame and fortune during the Gold Rush. Between that and my upcoming trip to the Guthrie Theater for the musical Little House on the Prairie, I'm definitely in pioneer mode.

According to Playbill, the cast will be headed by Will LeBow as Thomas Jefferson Calhoun, the head of the pioneering acting troupe; Mary Beth Fisher as Alice Calhoun, his wife; and Jeremiah Kissel as Edward Oldfield, a "utility player" who masquerades as a renowned British actor, despite actually being from Albany, New York.

I haven't heard of any of those performers, although I think LeBow is a well known Boston stage actor and director from his association with Shear Madness, the American Repertory Theater and the Huntington. Here's a profile from 1995.

It's hard to believe that I lived in Boston for five years and made it to the theatre a grand total of - once. (That I can remember). I saw A Chorus Line on tour during my freshman year of college. I didn't get back to Boston to see a show until decades later - when I took in a performance of Blue Man Group. (Very strange and once was definitely enough).

Okay, that's my short history of Boston theatergoing. Anyway, I'm making up for it now. In the past couple of years I've seen Parade at SpeakEasy Stage and the national tours of Sweeney Todd and The Drowsy Chaperone. I took a road trip to the Huntington twice last season, for The 39 Steps and She Loves Me, and I loved both of them.

So, there's much more to look forward to this season, including tours of Chazz Palminteri's one-man show A Bronx Tale and Dame Edna. In May, SpeakEasy is putting on Jerry Springer - The Opera. (Recommended for mature audiences. How exciting!) Also, I'll be adding a new theatre to my list when I see the legendary musical Follies at The Lyric Stage Company.

While I love going to Broadway, it's also been fun to discover what's available in my own backyard.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Not in front of the children

I'm not a rabid devotee of This American Life with Ira Glass, but I usually end up listening to at least part of it on Sunday while I'm driving around doing errands. (The radio is permanently tuned to NPR. I don't even know the call numbers of any other stations in my area).

There's always one segment that really grabs my attention, forcing me to sit my car, in the parking lot of whichever store I'm at, until it's over. Today, I heard the show's production manager, Seth Lind, talk about seeing an inappropriate movie as a child. When he was 6 years old, he watched The Shining and had nightmares and trouble falling asleep for two years afterward. (Lind is also a member of the improv group Thank You, Robot.)

The segment got me thinking about my age-inappropriate movie - Psycho. As a horror movie, it would probably be considered pretty tame today - I mean, it's not even in color - but it was scary enough for me. Actually, for me, it would be inappropriate at any age. As I mentioned in my review of the play The 39 Steps, I'm pretty squeamish.

I started watching Psycho on tv once when I was a little kid (or maybe not so little, I don't remember). I got as far as the shower scene. It made me so nauseous that I had to flee to the safety of my bedroom. I don't remember any nightmares or sleepless nights. But because of that experience, until fairly recently I pretty much swore off all Alfred Hitchcock movies. You can't be too careful.

I've never revisited Psycho and I'm certain I don't want to - ever. But I've mostly overcome my fear of Hitchcock and I've enjoyed many of his films over the past couple of years, including Vertigo, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Trouble with Harry, North by Northwest and The 39 Steps, all without any ill effects.

Okay, I'm not big on heights, so I was a little nervous about Vertigo, but knock on wood, it went well. Of course, none of those is really scary. I've stayed away from The Birds, though. I have a feeling that one would be a little too intense and I don't want to press my luck.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Little love for Little House

The musical Little House on the Prairie opened last night at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and unfortunately, the two reviews I could find range from scathing to lukewarm. You can pretty much sum it up this way: mostly praise for the cast, mostly criticism for the music and story.

In the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Dominic P. Papatola finds fault with just about every aspect of the show, from the score by Rachel Portman and Donna Di Novelli, to Tony winner Rachel Sheinkin's book, to the staging by director Francesca Zambello, to Melissa Gilbert's performance in the role of Caroline Ingalls.

"Though it's earnest as all get-out and though the overwhelming majority of the cast is more than up to the task of putting on a top-notch musical, the problems with this show are deep, structural and systemic." Papatola writes.

He's particularly critical of Portman's music. "F
ar too many of her compositions are song-like collations that are half-formed collections of musical phrases that don't build musically or thematically. Most feel like they're all introduction, cut off before they could develop into a melody. They're often shoehorned into the show as energy boosters or placeholders, rather than as plot-advancers."

Papatola calls Sheinkin's book "a scatter-brained collection of two-dimensional types," and says that Gilbert, obviously brought in for her marquee value, is "without question and by far the weakest link in the casting chain." She sounds "like someone trying to read foreign-language cue cards phonetically."

He does manage a few words of praise for the rest of the cast."Kara Lindsay, the just-out-of-college kid playing Laura, has an endearing spunkiness, plays Laura's various ages well and believably, and has a powerful-but-supple singing voice." And Kevin Massey, as Almanzo Wilder, Laura's love interest, "has a nicely awkward, aw-shucks charm."

In the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Graydon Royce is a bit kinder to the musical - calling it "a quaint throwback of instant nostalgia" and "an exuberant shout-out for rugged individualism all wrapped in a sanitized pageant of good-hearted Americana." Although he has some of the same criticisms of the book and score.

The creative team, Royce says, has "tricked out their proclamation with familiar types: grinning settlers who sweep women off their feet with big hugs; buggy races and July 4th firecrackers followed by the town burgher's call to "Circle round for the square dance!" Yee ha!" The score "has the broad strokes of Copland with its fiddles and hoedowns, and tries to corral a nod to the West with rhythms driven by tom-toms. The melodies, however, are pure Disney."

Still, Royce praises Lindsay, and Jenn Gambatese, who plays her sister Mary, blinded by scarlet fever. He describes their song, "I'll Be Your Eyes," as "a gorgeous duet that hits on every level." While Gilbert's singing "is not first class, Royce says that she "acquits herself absolutely fine." And Steve Blanchard's "broad shoulders and solid jaw" make him "the perfect vehicle to express Charles Ingalls' pioneer quest."

Despite the criticism, I'm keeping an open mind. I'll be in the audience for Little House on the Prairie in just three weeks, during my first-ever trip to Minnesota, and nothing can squelch my excitement. I'll let you know whether the critics have been too harsh or right on the mark.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Guess who may be coming to Broadway?

While it can be a bit cringe-inducing to watch today, 1967's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, directed by Stanley Kramer, is an iconic 1960s "message" movie.

Even if you've never seen the movie, you probably know the plot, or at least understand the meaning of the title. It's about an affluent couple, played by Spencer Tracy (in his final film role) and Katharine Hepburn, whose liberal values are tested when their daughter (Hepburn's niece, Katharine Houghton) brings home her African-American fiance, a brilliant doctor portrayed by Sidney Poitier.

I haven't read anything since last summer about plans for a stage version, to be directed by Kenny Leon. But this week, some casting rumors surfaced on According to Roger Friedman's story, Debra Winger and either Bill Pullman or Barry Bostwick are in line to play the Hepburn and Tracy roles, with Amanda Bynes as their daughter and Mekhi Phifer possibly stepping into Poitier's very big and legendary shoes. Of course, with Broadway shows falling by the wayside left and right, there's no guarantee that this will even happen.

Still, I hope it does. It's tempting to think of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner as hopelessly dated, a relic of its times. The movie was released right around the time of the landmark Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia that found laws barring interracial marriage were unconstitutional. Obviously, interracial marriage is much more common and accepted today.

The plot of the movie does strain credulity. It's easy to poke fun at Tracy and Hepburn's characters as upper-class white liberals who squirm uneasily when they finally have to practice what they preach. They have a very short time to decide whether they'll give this impending marriage their blessing.

And the way Poitier's character is written, he's so perfect that the only possible objection they could have is his race. (In truth, there's a very logical and understandable objection - the fact that their daughter only met him a short time ago, when she was on vacation in Hawaii!) Plus, Houghton's character seems a tad flightly. I mean, what does Poitier see in her!

But let me try to make a case for the continuing relevance of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

First, there are still, unfortunately, many families in which bringing home someone of a different race, religion, ethnic group - or the same gender - would not be greeted with open arms. One of the most poignant - and pointed - scenes in Passing Strange comes when Daniel Breaker's Youth realizes that his left-wing German friends aren't so eager to have him come meet mom and dad at Christmas.

What I appreciate about Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? is that there's no time for equivocation. This was the baby boomers demanding of their parents, tell us right now whether or not you believe in the American values of freedom and equality that we were taught in school, because we do believe in them.

And that tension - between what we say we believe in and what we actually do - is still relevant. It's very easy to say that we believe in freedom and equality and free speech, that we judge people by the content of their character. But there aren't many times in our lives when we're truly tested. As imperfect as it may be, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? is about what happens when that occurs.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

No popcorn please, we're British

It's not April Fool's Day, so this story from The Guardian must be true. A movie theater in Norwich, England, is experimenting with a no-popcorn night. Through September, the 7 p.m. screening on Tuesday will be popcorn-free.

"If it's a success, and I've no reason to suspect it won't be, we'll roll it out across all our cinemas and make it a permanent fixture," says Gabriel Swartland of Picturehouse Cinema. "People either love or hate popcorn. It makes sound business sense to cater to both these audiences."

Apparently, the no-popcorn movement has been gathering steam across Britain. I had no idea those little golden kernels were the object of so much scorn and outright hatred.

Daniel Broch, the owner of Everyman Cinema in London, who recently bought 17 other theaters, says he's going to "de-popcorn" every one of them. 'It has a disproportionate influence on the space in terms of its overwhelming smell, the cultural idea of it and the operational problems created by the mess it produces."

Nicolas Kent, artistic director of the adorably named Tricycle cinema and theatre, is even more derisive. "Popcorn is horrible stuff and I won't have it anywhere near my cinema,' he said. 'It's a form of junk food and that encourages junk entertainment. Its smell is all-pervasive, it makes huge amounts of mess, and it distracts and annoys people intensely."

The no-popcorn movement also seems tied into a desire to brand your movie palace as a more sophisticated place than the run-of-the-mill multiplex. "My ambition to make a night at the Rex a glamorous, dignified and civilised affair. People dress up to come here. It's special. Popcorn isn't," explains theater owner James Hannaway.

Frankly, I find it hard to get worked up over this issue. I used to get popcorn all the time at the movie theatre. It was just part of the experience. I always got a small size and usually polished it off before the movie began so I wouldn't be disturbing anyone. (I'm a very polite person).

I think it's different when you're at a play or musical and you're paying 10 times as much to get in and the actors' voices aren't booming all around in surround sound that would tend to drown out the sound of someone chomping away. And certainly some movies could be ruined by the sound of incessant chewing and gulping. But Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, well that's made for popcorn, Junior Mints and a super-size soda.

Popcorn, candy and soft drinks are pretty tried-and-true part of the moviegoing experience. I honestly can't say I've ever been bothered by someone eating popcorn at the movies. The smell doesn't bother me. I don't think it's nearly as messy as someone spilling a sticky, sugary soft drink on the floor or as noisy as someone opening a candy wrapper. I'm usually at a sparsely attended matinee, so I'm never sitting all that close to anyone anyway.

It's true, you can go overboard with anything. I once read a very funny book by Kevin Murphy called A Year At the Movies, where he and his family actually snuck in and ate an entire Thanksgiving dinner - turkey and everything - while watching Monsters, Inc. Ok, I like a snack now and then, but that's taking things too far.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Little House on tour

Wow, I can barely keep up with Little House on the Prairie news! The latest word, according to a story at, is that the musical, currently in previews at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, will embark on a 40-city tour beginning in the fall of 2009.

Obviously, we're in the very early stages, so there's no discussion yet of which cities or whether any of the cast currently with the show would go out on tour. And the matter of whether Little House will make a stop on Broadway first is still up in the air.

Producer Ben Sprecher says that a decision about a Broadway transfer will be made following the official opening at the Guthrie, scheduled for Friday. (I'm thinking they're waiting for the reviews to come in.) He tells Playbill that the producing team is keeping all options open.

So, good news for Little House fans who can't make it to Minneapolis and for those of us hoping that the show gets its moment in the Broadway spotlight.

Just a few tomorrows from today

Okay, I know I'm way too excited about this, but I got a brochure yesterday from the Providence Performing Arts Center, where the Broadway tours stop. In addition to the shows that they announced previously, we're getting Mamma Mia! and Annie! Just looking at the logo makes me smile.

I'll probably see Mamma Mia!, which will be playing from Dec. 30-Jan. 4. I've already caught it on Broadway and I loved the movie, so seeing the musical on tour will complete the circle. Plus, it'll be the middle of winter. What better time to hear those catchy Abba songs again and feel the energy that only comes from a live performance in a packed theatre.

But I'm particularly excited about Annie, which is coming May 1-3. Granted, it's like the 290 zillionth non-Equity tour, the one where they crisscross the country playing in a different city every two or three days, and the sets are painted backdrops. But I don't care. It's Annie for gosh sakes. And I've never seen it on stage.

There'll be a dog, and cute little orphans singing and dancing their little hearts out in New York City during the Great Depression. Plus, it's got a great score by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin: "It's a Hard Knock Life," "Easy Street," "You're Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile," and of course, "Tomorrow."

(Although I have to wonder what it's like for the little girls in the show, some of whom are as young as 9 years old. I was looking at the tour schedule, and there are some weeks when they're in a different city practically every night!)

I might have mentioned it before, but I have a bit of history with Annie. After we graduated from college, my roommate and I were hanging around in our dorm for a couple of days. A friend of ours worked at a movie theater and could get us in to see anything we wanted for free, which was very appealing since we were unemployed newly minted college graduates. (Well, come to think of it, my roommate had a job, but I didn't).

The problem was, we each wanted to see a different movie. I really, really wanted to see Annie. (As much as I might try to contain it, my latent musical theatre geekdom was struggling to break free even then). My roommate, a big science fiction fan, wanted to see a little Steven Spielberg flick that had just opened by the name of E.T. Apparently, I must have had terrific powers of persuasion back then, because I won!

One of the most fun parts about becoming a full-fledged musical theatre fan, in addition to actually seeing shows for the first time, is collecting all of the assorted paraphernalia that comes with them.

Let's see, this means that I'll have to get the 30th anniversary cast recording of Annie that was released in June. (I already have the 1977 Broadway cast recording). And I'll have to watch Life After Tomorrow, a documentary about the young girls who were in the musical on Broadway. I've already seen the 1999 tv version of Annie that aired on ABC. Maybe, for old time's sake, I'll watch the movie again, too. Am I leaving anything out?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Hello NPR, are you listening?

When I last checked, which was actually just a few seconds ago, I had 191 podcasts waiting for me in iTunes. I'm compulsive about collecting them, not so compulsive about listening to them, apparently. To be fair, some I have listened to, I just haven't gotten around to deleting them. Some, I will probably just delete without listening.

Anyway, I'm always looking for more. I'm beginning to find out what a great source National Public Radio is for theatre-related feature stories. Unfortunately, I can't always be in my car or at my computer listening to them.

There is a performing arts page on NPR's Web site, which seems to be updated fairly regularly. Among the recent segments I missed:

A story by legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg on Laurence Fishburne's performance in Thurgood;

How the overture is making a comeback on Broadway in revivals like Gypsy and South Pacific;

A look back at the career of Mel Brooks, who talks about Young Frankenstein and a potential stage version of Blazing Saddles; and a look forward in the career of Tony-winner Lin-Manuel Miranda from In the Heights;

An interview with Mark Rylance, Tony winner for his performance in Boeing Boeing, about the possibility that Shakespeare didn't write all of the plays attributed to him;

An interview with Morgan Freeman from April, when he was on Broadway in The Country Girl, that looks back on some of his other stage roles;

A story about the Denver Center Theatre Company and its mission to stage full-fledged productions of works by new playwrights;

A witty essay by novelist Marc Acito on the allure of musicals and the joys of singing out loud, in public, whenever the urge strikes him;

From In Character, which examines memorable American characters, there's Auntie Mame and Troy Maxson, from August Wilson's Fences. Actually, there are a lot of characters from the world of theatre in this series: Blanche DuBois, Willy Loman, Mama Rose.

There are lots more, and it can be difficult to keep track of them. What I need is a weekly podcast of all the theatre stories from all of its programs, like NPR assembles for segments on books and movies and music.

If someone from the programming department is reading this, it doesn't have to be long - 30 minutes or so would be great - that's half of my workout on the treadmill.

And no, that's not me huffing and puffing in the drawing. Because obviously, it's the wrong gender, the person isn't wearing headphones, I don't own a lime green exercise outfit and, most importantly, I only wish I could work that hard!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Zimmy & Me

On Sunday, Bob Dylan will perform at the Virgin Mobile Festival in Baltimore. In honor of the occasion, fans of Zimmy are weighing in at The Washington Post with their Top 5 Dylan songs.

Dylan has always been one of my favorite songwriters, even when I preferred other people singing his songs. I was shocked that so few people mentioned my all-time favorite, so I came up with a list of my own. (For a different take on the matter, my friend Dan weighs in with his picks at Media Nation.)

1. Blowin' in the Wind (1962) - Based on a spiritual, "No More Auction Block," this song became an anthem of the civil-rights movement, especially after it was recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary. I think it's an American classic, and Dylan's finest song. (I'm certain it's also the first Bob Dylan song I ever heard). While some critics contend that the lyrics are ambiguous, I disagree. "Blowin' in the Wind" resonates deeply more than four decades later with a simple, direct question that continues to define the struggle for equal rights: "How many years can some people exist before they're allowed to be free?"

2. The Times They Are A-Changin' (1963) - While Dylan always rebelled against being labeled a protest singer or the voice of his generation, in songs like "The Times They Are A-Changin," I think he perfectly captured that generational divide. "Come mothers and fathers throughout the land, don't criticize what you can't understand. Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command. Your old road is rapidly agin'."

3. Like a Rolling Stone (1965) - I think "Like a Rolling Stone" is a great example of Dylan's skill as a storyteller. I also think that the sense of alienation in the lyrics, the sense of being a little adrift and uncertain of your place in the world, must have struck a chord with people in the mid 1960s: "How does it feel to be on your own with no direction home, a complete unknown. Like a rolling stone?" Haven't we all felt like that at one time or another?

4. Mr. Tambourine Man (1964) - Sometimes the lyrics in Dylan's songs can be a bit cryptic, but I think this is one of his most beautiful, with some of his most evocative and unusual imagery: "Then take me disappearin' through the smoke rings of my mind. Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves. The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach. Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow."

5. Chimes of Freedom (1964) - My favorite version isn't Dylan's, but Bruce Springsteen's cover of it. Springsteen performed it in 1988, and it was released to benefit a tour in support of Amnesty International. I love the mixture of poetry and protest in the lyrics: Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake. Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an' forsaked. Tolling for the outcast, burnin' constantly at stake. An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing."

Ok, you're probably sensing a theme here. All of my favorites were written in the early to mid-1960s. What can I say? I've always been interested in the history, politics and culture of the sixties. As much as Dylan fought against it, his music really did help to define that decade. In many ways, I guess they're the obvious picks. They're probably Dylan's most well-known songs. I know he wrote plenty of great music after 1965, but these are the ones that I love listening to the most. It's my folkie side coming out, I guess.

I've only seen Dylan perform once, on Aug. 31, 1988, at The New York State Fair, in Syracuse. (Wow, 20 years ago this month. I didn't realize it had been that long!) As usual, he didn't say much between songs. But it was a great concert and he played a couple of my all-time favorite tunes. Here's the track list:

Subterranean Homesick Blues, I'll Remember You, Tangled Up In Blue, All Along The Watchtower, Every Grain Of Sand, Highway 61 Revisited, To Ramona, Girl From The North Country, Don't Think Twice, One Too Many Mornings, I Shall Be Released, Silvio, Like A Rolling Stone, Times They Are A-Changin', Barbara Allen, and Maggie's Farm.

In a great bit of coincidence, a week after that anniversary I'll be making my first visit to Minneapolis, where a teenage Robert Zimmerman came from the North Country city of Hibbing to attend the University of Minnesota, where he got involved in the folk music scene, and where he became Bob Dylan.