Wednesday, June 29, 2011

In New York, an exhilarating vote for gay marriage

Despite a lifetime of reading about the civil-rights movement, nothing prepared me for how I'd feel on Friday night during an actual civil-rights victory. I was in New York City when the state Senate voted to legalize gay marriage and in a word, I felt exhilarated.

I'd been checking my Twitter feed all afternoon on the train to New York and before seeing Tony Kusnher's The Illusion, at the Signature Theatre. At intermission, the Senate still hadn't voted.

Well after the play, even before I could turn my iPhone back on, the theatre was buzzing with the news that gay marriage had passed. I heard it standing in line in the ladies room, from women who probably ranged in age from their 70s to their 20s and who were equally elated.

I was excited in 2004 when same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts, and in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected as the first African-American president. But this was a different kind of civil-rights milestone. Because of the impact it will have on my friends, it felt more personal.

In The New York Times on Sunday, columnist Frank Bruni spoke for me and for just about every straight person I know when he wrote "how how common it now is for Americans to realize that they know and love people who are gay."

I know several couples in New York, people like my friends Jeff and Matt who've been together for 7 1/2 years, who now will be able to get married in the state where they live. Whatever they decide, I'm so happy that the choice is theirs.

Jeff wrote in his blog, "I'm thrilled that my state now treats me as an equal citizen." And that's how it should be. I think the world of my friends - good people, hardworking, law-abiding and taxpaying. Of course they should have all of the rights that I have. Why is there even a question about that?

On Saturday, I went down to Greenwich Village where preparations were under way for Sunday's Gay Pride Parade, and it felt joyous.

I walked over to the Stonewall Inn, named for the bar where the gay-rights movement was born in the wake of a police raid in 1969. There were lots of people, many with children, posing for pictures. One group held up The New York Times with its banner headline announcing the vote.

During my April trip to New York City I saw Kushner's Angels in America at the Signature, and it was unforgettable. The last scene takes place at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. On Sunday, I saw the towering statue of the angel of Bethesda for myself.

The play's stirring final lines are spoken by Prior Walter, a young gay man who has been living with AIDS for five years. The disease has sapped his strength but his determination to live remains strong. He says, in part, "The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come."

Thankfully in New York, for people I know and love, it has. The law takes effect on July 24.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

In memory of Clarence "The Big Man" Clemons

I can't believe Clarence Clemons has passed away, at age 69.

I didn't really get into music until college but it was a great time to become a fan of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, which I did thanks to my friend Dan Kennedy.

This was a few years after Born to Run and just before Darkness on the Edge of Town, so there was a tremendous sense of anticipation. The double-LP The River is my favorite from that era. I remember listening to it on my combination turntable, eight-track player.

Of course, it was several years before I got a chance to see the band onstage. In those pre-MTV, pre-YouTube days, there were no videos or concert footage. All you had were the albums and maybe some bootlegs.

But friends of mine, including Dan, had seen Springsteen perform. I'd heard stories about how unforgettable his concerts were, including the banter between Bruce and "The Big Man," saxophonist Clarence Clemons.

I finally got my chance in 1984 in Hartford, Conn., when Springsteen and the E Street Band toured after Born in the U.S.A. came out. I remember Bruce told the story, with great theatricality, about the night he and Clarence met, at a bar in Asbury Park, N.J.

The concert was thrilling - everything I thought it would be. I had another chance to see Springsteen several years later, in Syracuse. I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that I'll probably never fall in love with a rock 'n' roll band the same way again.

Clemons' saxophone solos were such a well, big, part of making Springsteen's sound unique. I also loved his duet with Jackson Browne, "You're a Friend of Mine." You can listen to it here. My condolences to Clemons' friends and family and to his E Street family. Here's the New York Times obituary and here's the statement from Bruce Springsteen's official website:

It is with overwhelming sadness that we inform our friends and fans that at 7:00 tonight, Saturday, June 18, our beloved friend and bandmate, Clarence Clemons passed away. The cause was complications from his stroke of last Sunday, June 12th.

Clarence lived a wonderful life. He carried within him a love of people that made them love him. He created a wondrous and extended family. He loved the saxophone, loved our fans and gave everything he had every night he stepped on stage. His loss is immeasurable and we are honored and thankful to have known him and had the opportunity to stand beside him for nearly forty years.

He was my great friend, my partner, and with Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music. His life, his memory, and his love will live on in that story and in our band.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Stephen Sondheim's Company with the New York Philharmonic

I saw Stephen Sondheim's Company with the New York Philharmonic last night and unlike my two previous theatre at the movies outings, this one went off without a hitch. The screening started on time, ended on time, the sound was perfect - and I really enjoyed it.

The only thing missing, in my opinion, was an intermission. The 20-second pause after the 90-minute first act wasn't enough. The movie theatre seats were pretty comfy but still, after a while you need a break.

I missed the 2007 Broadway revival with Raul Esparza in the theatre but I saw it on PBS. Honestly, it didn't really stick with me. I remember there were parts where I laughed but overall, the musical seemed kind of somber. (As I recall, the set was dark and everyone was dressed in black.)

This time, Company in concert was lighter and much funnier. And I got into the songs a lot more. I loved the second-act opener "Side By Side By Side / What Would We Do Without You," a chorus line-like song-and-dance number. (The cast performed it on the Tony Awards and you can watch it here.)

Neil Patrick Harris plays the commitment-phobic Robert, whose friends are all trying to get him to settle down and get married, just as their own marriages are in various states of collapse. Harris didn't display the same depth as Esparza, especially in "Being Alive," but he's got a sweet, clear voice. In the close-ups I could see his larynx and neck muscles working hard.

Martha Plimpton and Stephen Colbert were hilarious as husband and wife. They're terrific comedic actors, handling the bickering and the physical humor equally well. It was great to see Christina Hendricks, the bold and sexy office manager Joan in Mad Men, play a flighty and sexy airline stewardess. Anika Noni Rose was a revelation as Marta, one of Bobby's girlfriends. What a powerful voice in "Another Hundred People."

Well, I could go on. Patti LuPone's alcohol-drenched "The Ladies Who Lunch" was terrific. Overall, it was a great 2 1/2 hours and it definitely made me want to go out and get a cast recording. There are several more dates for Company at the movies, so check your local listings!

Monday, June 13, 2011

My 99 cents on The Book of Mormon Broadway cast recording

I haven't seen The Book of Mormon, Broadway's newest Tony winner for Best Musical, but Amazon had the cast recording on sale for $1.99 as an MP3 download. With the way tickets are selling, that might be as close as I'll get for awhile.

Because I had a credit, it ended up only costing me 99 cents! So here's my 99 cents on The Book of Mormon. After listening a few times to the songs and the snippets of dialogue two things struck me - one good and one not so good.

The songs performed by the young Mormons who are about to embark on their stints as missionaries are catchy and upbeat and funny. The lyrics are sweet and heartfelt about their desire to spread their religious faith and make the world a better place.

In fact, they seemed so positive, so earnest and sincere, that I'm surprised the Mormon Church isn't already using them as recruiting tools. Specifically, "Hello," "Two By Two" and "I Believe" are virtual love songs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But the other thing that struck me about The Book of Mormon was the portrayal of the village in Uganda where Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad, who play the musical's two Odd Couple-like missionaries, are sent.

The Africans, in sharp contrast to the clean-cut, All-American and God-fearing Mormons, are presented as violent, profane, ignorant and easily led. I can't even bring myself to write what the villagers believe will "cure" them of AIDS.

The one appealing Ugandan character, played by Tony winner Nikki James, does get a nice song where she talks about her hopes and dreams, if she can only reach the paradise of "Sal Tlay Ka Siti." (Oh hah, hah, that's a joke on the Ugandans' inability to pronounce Salt Lake City.)

I know that The Book of Mormon was created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the South Park guys, and Robert Lopez, the guy from Avenue Q. I realize that the clash of cultures is what this musical is all about. It's a satire - it's supposed to be irreverent and skewer everyone. But based on what I've heard, the skewering just seems a little one-sided.

I'd still like to see The Book of Mormon someday. I realize it's unfair to judge a musical solely on its cast recording. I may be hearing things out of context, not getting the full picture of the story and characters. But for now, that's the only thing I have.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Theatre at the movies: The Importance of Being Earnest, in HD

If you're like me and you can't hop on a plane or train to London or New York whenever you want, then seeing some Broadway or British theatre filmed onstage and shown at the movies is a terrific option.

But sadly, after two recent excursions I've come to the conclusion that the operators of America's multiplexes (ok, one in particular) haven't yet worked out all the kinks.

So, in the spirit of constructive criticism (after all, I want these screenings to be successful and continue) here's some friendly advice:

Get the technical stuff down beforehand.

In April, I saw Frankenstein as part of the second season of NT Live, from Britain's National Theatre. It took the projectionist 45 minutes to get the digital file up and running. As a result, he fast-forwarded through the making-of segment that I wanted to see.

Start the show at the time that's advertised.

Yesterday, I was at the same multiplex at 6 p.m. to see the Broadway revival of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. I got to my seat at about 5:45 and host David Hyde Pierce was already finishing up his backstage tour. (Although the play itself didn't begin until 6.)

There needs to be some marketing punch.

The only way I knew Earnest was playing there was because I signed up for an e-mail alert from the Roundabout Theatre Company. The multiplex website never listed the title, just called it an "NT Live" production, which it wasn't. I even e-mailed them but I never got an answer. There was nothing about it in their Twitter feed or on their Facebook page either. Lost opportunities.

Turn down the volume, I'm not deaf.

The sound was so loud that I thought I might have to give up and go home. I guess someone must have forgotten to turn down the volume from the action movie that played there earlier in the day, I don't know. But it was unbearable. Thankfully, about 10 minutes in they adjusted it.

6 o'clock is too early unless you're a student or retired.

There were only about a half-dozen people in the the place, a fraction of the audience for Frankenstein, and it's no wonder - most people were probably just getting home from work. Maybe they would have gotten a bigger audience with a little publicity and a later showing.

Anyway I liked the play, especially Tony nominee Brian Bedford as the aristocratic and snobbish Lady Bracknell. He was a hoot! In fact, I thought Earnest dragged a bit when he wasn't onstage, which was the entire second act. Still, if you're a theatre fan and you have a chance to see it, definitely go. There are screenings through the end of the month.

As I've said before, watching a play or musical at the movies is a different experience. You don't get the adrenaline rush that comes from seeing something live, with a packed audience. I laughed out loud a few times but I was the only one. And with a movie, the camera determines where your eye goes to a great extent. At the theatre, you decide.

I've already got my ticket in a couple weeks for the concert version of Stephen Sondheim's Company, with the New York Philharmonic, which was filmed in April. This time it'll be at a different movie theatre chain, so hopefully things will run more smoothly. I'll let you know.