Thursday, January 31, 2008

My kind of stimulus

Thanks to Hacking Netflix for passing along this tongue-in-cheek item from Dateline Hollywood: "Congress and President Bush agree on Netflix rebates for Americans during writers strike."

The "rebate" to be sent out by the U.S. government will amount to three free Netflix rentals. Apparently there was a "disturbing" poll by Entertainment Weekly showing that, gasp, Americans were watching less television and reading more books! But the article quotes an expert who says he doesn't think it'll have much of an impact on Americans' newly discovered reading habits: “They’ll probably watch all three DVDs in one night, and the next evening, they’ll be reading again, or playing board games with their families.”

As someone who tries to squeeze in time for watching television AND reading books, I have to say that the writers' strike hasn't affected me all that much. Sure, I don't have much to look forward to on my DVR: no fresh episodes of Desperate Housewives or Brothers and Sisters or 30 Rock. But Lost is starting up again tonight, and I'm a loyal Netflix subscriber, so I'm never without entertainment.

No, I don't own stock in the company or work there or know anyone who works there. And yes, I know about the company's reputation for "throttling," delaying the shipment of new movies for heavy renters. Frankly, it hasn't affected me. I send back my three movies on Monday, and by Friday, I have three more ready for weekend viewing. As someone who spends a good portion of her life running errands, what Netflix has done is free me from the tyranny of late fees and constant trips to the video store.

I can still remember how thrilling it felt, in May 2003, when I finished watching Todd Haynes' homage to 1950s melodrama, Far from Heaven, sealed it up in the red-and-white Netflix envelope, and dropped it in the mailbox at the end of my street. It was a liberating experience to know that I didn't have to drive down to the video store to return it.

I think my movie and tv-watching has gotten a lot more adventurous since I signed up for Netflix. I watch more old movies, documentaries, more foreign films, things I probably would have passed right by at the video store, like Polish director Krzystof Kieslowski's trilogy Red, White and Blue. I caught up on the first five years of The Sopranos on DVD and I'm working my way through Sex and the City now. I've loved both of them.

Actually, I think it's more enoyable watching these shows on DVD than it is to watch them from week to week. I find that I'm much more caught up in the characters and their stories when I can see three or four episodes one after another. My biggest problem now is trying to decide what to start after my Sex and the City marathon ends. Sadly, I'm already halfway through the final season.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Today marks the 15th anniversary of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which forces gay and lesbian Americans to hide their sexual orientation if they want to serve in the military. Time magazine has an article about it.

I have to admit that when President Bill Clinton announced the policy shortly after his inauguration in 1993, I didn't give it much thought. I didn't work with anyone who was openly gay. I didn't have any friends who were openly gay. I knew that Clinton, having grown up in the segregated South, saw it as a civil rights issue, but I wondered why he picked it to focus on so early in his first term. I didn't appreciate why it was so significant, and why "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was such a degrading policy.

Well, things have changed since then. Today, almost everyone I know works with someone or has friends or relatives who are openly gay or lesbian. I have close friends, colleagues, people I love and admire, who are gay. While things are far from perfect, as a society we have moved toward a greater understanding that a person's sexual orientation is something they're born with, and in the end, it's not a big deal, just part of what makes that person a unique individual.

I can't even comprehend how horrible, how suffocating it would be for someone I know and love to be in the closet, to fear what would happen to them if they came out. It's inhumane to expect someone to live that way. And the policy that I didn't give much thought to 15 years ago, today seems unfair, discriminatory, ridiculous and absolutely un-American.

There is no reason why, if someone wants to serve their country, they should be forced to hide something so basic about themselves. That's not what this country is supposed to be about. It goes against our values as an open, democratic, free, egalitarian nation. And I think it's a shame that the debate isn't framed that way.

While I've never been in the military, I have lived in a country - Israel - where gays serve openly. And no one would say that Israel doesn't have a strong army, that its soldiers don't face implacable enemies every bit as tough as those U.S. soldiers face in Iraq. During the year I spent in Israel, I felt totally secure that I had a strong, skilled army helping to keep me safe.

Here's what a gay ex-officer in the Israel Defense Forces had to say on the subject, and what Americans could learn from Israel. And here's a study from the Michael D. Palm Center on the impact of gays and lesbians serving openly in the Israeli army. The conclusion: "Our findings are that Israel’s decision to lift its gay ban had no impact on performance and that despite differences between the two cases, lessons from the Israeli experience are relevant for determining what would happen if the U.S. Congress and Pentagon lifted the American gay ban."

And here's a commentary from the late Sen. Barry Goldwater, arguing forcefully that the ban should be lifted. He says, in part, "Nobody thought that blacks or women could ever be integrated into the military. Many thought that an all-volunteer force could never protect our national interest. Well, it has, and despite those who feared the worst - I among them - we are still the best and will continue to be."

Monday, January 28, 2008

Passing the torch

I'm not sure whether it'll have much of an imapct, but I think it's pretty interesting that Caroline Kennedy endorsed Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination.

For a progressive Democratic politician, being anointed the heir to John F. Kennedy is pretty much like finding the Holy Grail. I mean, how many people over the years have told Caroline that they got into politics because of her father? Countless, I'm sure. And every one of them, I'm sure, would love to have had her blessing. (Poor John Forbes Kerry even had the same initials. It didn't help).

I was struck by the forcefulness of Kennedy's opinion piece in Sunday's New York Times. Here's the quote that really stood out: "I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them. But for the first time, I believe I have found the man who could be that president — not just for me, but for a new generation of Americans."

Ok, I realize that Obama is running against Hillary Clinton, not Bill. Or maybe he is. Still, I couldn't help but wonder how Bill Clinton must have felt when he read that. Given Clinton's closeness to the Kennedy family over the years, he must have thought, Why Obama and not me? I mean it's like the unkindest cut of all. Just think of the ubiquitous picture of a teenage Clinton, delegate from Arkansas to the Boys Nation convention in July 1963, shaking hands with President Kennedy.

Here's what Bill Clinton said in 1998 at a dinner for the Kennedy Library Foundation: "I think I should begin by saying that for me this is not an obligation, it is an honor, not only because like every other member of my generation I was inspired by President Kennedy but because Hillary and Chelsea and I have been profoundly moved by the uncommon kindnesses of this family to ours."

I was at Clinton's first inauguration, in 1993, and I remember standing in front of the United States Capitol on a very cold January morning, in the largest crowd I'd ever been in. It was so exciting to be there, to be a part of history, to see the Capitol all decked out in red, white and blue bunting. There was a certain timeless quality to the whole ceremony. Someone standing near me said that her parents had been at Kennedy's inauguration, in January 1961.

Of course, everyone can recite a line or two from JFK's inaugural address: "Ask not what your country can do for you." "The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans." Those phrases are taught in school, they're part of our collective memory, right up there with "I have a dream" and "Fourscore and seven years ago."

When Clinton spoke, I was really straining for some sentence, some phrase, that I would always remember, that would become a part of history, just like John F. Kennedy's speech. But that moment never came. I don't remember one word of what he said. In fact, the only quote from Clinton that anyone can remember is, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman."

I can still remember snippets of Obama's keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004. There was his slightly self-deprecating tone: "the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too." He talked about how we're not Red state America or Blue state America, but simply the United States of America: "We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we've got some gay friends in the Red States." And there was a nod to faith: "It is that fundamental belief: I am my brother’s keeper. I am my sister’s keeper that makes this country work."

After Clinton's inauguration, I figured that politicians simply didn't make memorable speeches anymore. Whatever you think about Obama as a candidate, he does renew my faith in great political oratory. People who compare him with Jesse Jackson are off base. I've heard Jackson, and he's a mesmerizing speaker. But his cadence and delivery come from the church. Obama sounds more like a traditional politician, but a politician in the JFK mold - someone who uses language to unite and inspire Americans.

The more I think about it, I can certainly see why Caroline Kennedy felt inspired to make her endorsement - and why she never felt so inspired to say the same things about Bill Clinton. (And don't get me started on Clinton's signing of the vile Defense of Marriage Act or "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," a move that enshrined discrimination as public policy).

Kennedy wrote that as a mother of three teenagers, she wants a president who will inspire young people. The generation that's coming of age today, she says, feels hopeless and disengaged. What's important is not so much that Obama reminds her of her father, but her sense that Obama represents a generational shift similar to the one that occurred when JFK succeeded Dwight Eisenhower. (If Obama is elected, for the first time in my life I'll be older than the president of the United States.)

I bet that contrast will become even more stark if Obama ends up as the Democratic nominee and John McCain wins the Republican nod. You go to McCain's Web site, and there's a giant picture of McCain. The first image you see on Obama's Web site is the youthful candidate surrounded by his loving, attractive family. I mean, look at that picture. This could be Kennedy/Nixon all over again.

As someone who's always been fascinated by the sixties, the endorsement made me think of a time in the early part of that decade when we were confident of our place in the world, the future looked limitless and America was on the cusp of change. (Go watch Hairspray right now). Are we there again? I don't know. But it's intriguing to think about.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Sones de Mexico

I was driving around doing errands on Thursday, and when I turned on the radio to NPR, I heard a song in a foreign language. Even though I didn't understand the words, the music was instantly recognizable to me, and to anyone else who's ever been in elementary school. It was "This Land is Your Land" in Spanish, and it sounded great.

I didn't realize it at the time, but I was listening to an interview by Tom Ashbrook, host of WBUR's On Point, with the members of a Chicago-based Mexican folk band called Sones de Mexico. Their album Esta Tierra Es Tuya, (This Land is Your Land) has been nominated for a Grammy award.

According to their Web site, the band was formed in 1994 to keep alive Mexican son music, which combines indigenous, African and Spanish traditions. They also borrow from Irish, country and western, jazz, rock 'n' roll and classical music. On Esta Tierra Es Tuya, the band does a cover of Led Zeppelin's "Four Sticks" and an arrangement of Bach's "Brandenburg Concerto."

In an interview with NPR's Weekend Edition, band member Juan Dies says "This Land Is Your Land" kept playing over and over in his head during the immigrant rights demonstration of the past few years, so he decided to do some research. Dies says he sees parallels between today's Mexican workers who come to the United States and the Dust Bowl migrants that Woody Guthrie was writing about.

"Woody Guthrie wrote this song in 1940, at a time when migrant workers from the Great Plains were being displaced by drought and the Dust Bowl," Dies says. "They were traveling and looking for opportunities, for a chance to work and feed their families."

Dies told NPR that he decided to translate Guthrie's classic into Spanish, while adding a few lyrics of his own: "In the world there are people who are poor / In the world there are people who are rich / And then there are the others, the travelers / who are seeking an opportunity."

Friday, January 25, 2008

Books without end

I'm a big Simon and Garfunkel fan. While I've never seen them perform, or Paul Simon alone, I did get to see Art Garfunkel in concert once, when I was in college, and he has a beautiful voice. But I didn't know that he's also a voracious reader and keeper of lists.

A few times I've tried to keep a list of book I've read or movies I've seen, or things I want to read or see, but I'm not organized or dedicated enough to keep it going. So I just find this kind of astounding. On his web site, Art has a list of every book he's ever read from June 1968 to the end of 2007.

The list numbers more than 1,000 - from The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in June 1968, to Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons, at the end of 2007. It comes out to about two books a month. There's nothing for 2008 yet, so I don't know if Art's still compiling the list. I hope so. It would be a shame to stop now.

And wow, Art seems like a pretty serious guy, with very eclectic tastes. (If I had a list, let's just say there would be less Jean-Jacque Rousseau and more John Grisham.) His choices are pretty much all over the place: classic fiction, nonfiction, memoirs, autobiographies, history, philosophy, religion, current events, contemporary titles and works from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

If you don't want to look through all of the titles, Art has helpfully included 135 of his favorites, listed in the order in which they were read. There doesn't seem to be a pattern. The man really does read everything.

Some of his favorites are books I've enjoyed, too: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Oscar Hijuelos' The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, Thomas Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Doesn't everyone go through a Zen period when they're in college?) and Robert Kaplan's Balkan Ghosts. There's one I'd never heard of, but I may have to pick up now: Simon and Garfunkel: The Definitive Biography, by Victoria Kingston. That must be very weird, reading a book about yourself!

On the other hand, Art also reads a lot of books that sat on my shelves unread for years: James Joyce's Ulysses, Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. And there are books I would only read if I were marooned on a desert island, like anything by Tolstoy or Jane Austen. (I do try to watch all the movies, though. Does that count?)

Art's tastes lean toward very serious, highbrow books, but apparently every once in awhile he indulges in something popular, just like the rest of us: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Stephen King's The Shining and Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire. He's also read Postcards from the Edge by Paul Simon's ex-wife Carrie Fisher.

Here's an article from The Guardian about Art's library. The writer, Nigel Smith, notes that he read Catch-22 in February 1969, while he was making his acting debut in Mike Nichols' movie adaptation. And I'm not sure if there's any connection, but in the month after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, he read military historian Peter Paret's Understanding War.

In an interview with The New Yorker, Art says that he avoids fluff. "I read for the reading pleasure, not for the gold star. Reading is a way to take downtime and make it stimulating. If you’re in the waiting room of a dentist’s office and don’t want to twiddle your thumbs, you turn to Tolstoy.”

Ok, that's not exactly the reading material I'd take to the dentist, but here's to you, Mr. Garfunkel!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

One I'll always remember

As my friend Steve was first to confirm this morning, The Color Purple is ending its Broadway run on Feb. 24. For me, it's kind of sad news. This is the first closing that's hit me personally. Sometimes a show is memorable because of the circumstances in which you see it, and that's certainly true in this case.

The Color Purple was the first show that Steve and I saw together - the Broadway Theatre, on Broadway, with Steve on Broadway. What a great combination! And I still can't believe that even though we bought our tickets weeks apart, we somehow ended up sitting right next to each other. It was fate, or the unseen hand of Oprah, or a little of both. Either way, we were meant to see that show, on that night in July, together.

I remember watching The Late Show with David Letterman the night he had Oprah as a guest. At the end of the show, on Dec. 1, 2005, he escorted her next door, to the Broadway Theatre, for the opening night of the The Color Purple. I never dreamed that someday I'd be in the audience at The Late Show, have my own escort to the Broadway Theatre, and thanks to Steve, my very own opening night Playbill.

Even though I missed out on seeing Fantasia that evening, I saw a wonderful understudy take on the role of Celie, Saycon Sengbloh. Best of all, that was the day I found my brother. How often do you leave the theater with a new sibling? Not often, I bet. It was the perfect ending to a perfect day. Thank-you Steve!

Apart from the personal connection, I think that The Color Purple is a powerful, moving work. It's got a very compelling main character in Celie. You watch this poor black girl, abused, insecure and unloved, grow into a confident, mature, successful woman. In the song "I'm Here," when Celie sings "I'm thankful for loving who I really am," you realize what a monumental journey you've just been on with her.

It also reminds me a little of Fiddler on the Roof for its portrayal of a close-knit community united by faith in the face of a hostile, bigoted world. And I admire playwright Marsha Norman, who adapted the book from Alice Walker's novel, for not soft-pedaling racism or sexism or domestic abuse.

Some scenes can be very difficult to watch. I had an especially hard time when Celie goes to jail to visit Sofia, played by NaTasha Yvette Williams, who's been beaten and imprisoned for punching the mayor, after refusing to go to work as his wife's maid.

I was struck by sentence in the liner notes for the Broadway cast recording: "Music is the best way we have to express our joy as human beings." Despite some very serious themes, The Color Purple is an uplifting work. The music and lyrics, by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, are about joy and survival in the face of often terrible circumstances.

When Steve and I got to the theater, we saw a long line of people waiting to get their money back because Fantasia was out. I wish they would have stayed. I don't think The Color Purple needs a star. While I'm sad that the show is ending its Broadway run, I hope that it'll have a successful life on tour, and attract a diverse audience. It's not just an African-American story or a story that will only resonate with women. I think it's simply a great story.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


I saw Rent on stage for the first time, with the touring production, several days after last week's announcement that the show would end its 12-year Broadway run on June 1.

Sitting in the audience in Providence on Sunday afternoon, I couldn't help but think of everything I'd read earlier in the week - things I hadn't really thought about when I watched the movie version in 2005.

I knew that Jonathan Larson, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, had died of an aneurysm the night before the show made its public debut, a tragedy that will always give Rent an added measure of poignancy. And I knew there were legions of "Rentheads," drawn to the story, taken from Puccini's opera La Boheme, of young, struggling artists in New York City's East Village. It was a groundbreaking work for its depiction of people suffering from AIDS, for its multiracial cast, for its gay, lesbian, transgendered and bisexual characters, for its vibrant rock 'n' roll score.

But I hadn't really understood what Rent had meant to so many people, and the depth of that feeling, until I read what my fellow bloggers wrote. Rent was an electrifying experience, the first show that their generation grabbed onto, the first time they cried in the theater and the storyline about AIDS in the late 1980s made them think of dozens of friends who had died.

Twelve years later, much has changed. AIDS has thankfully become a manageable disease, something that you can live with, rather than just die from. But reading those firsthand accounts of what it had been like to see Rent a decade earlier somehow made the show seem more immediate to me. And Rent on stage is still a pretty emotional, compelling experience.

First of all, I loved the music, and this touring production has singers with strong, powerful, soaring voices, including South African Idol winner Heinz Winckler as Roger, and former American Idol finalist Anwar Robinson as Tom Collins. With "La Vie Boheme" and "Seasons of Love" I think Rent has one of the best first-act closings/second-act openings that I've ever seen.

And the stories of people coping with AIDS are still powerful. That's what got to me the most. When Roger, an HIV-positive musician, sings "One Song Glory" as his shadow is projected larger than life on the brick wall behind him, it was first of several times that I felt myself getting choked up. Another time was when Tom Collins sings "I'll Cover You" to eulogize the drag queen Angel, played by Kristen Alexzander-Griffith, who has died of AIDS.

I just wish that Rent had spent more time with those very moving stories. I wish we could have gotten to know some of those characters better, where they came from, how they ended up in such dire circumstances. At times I felt like there was just too much going on, too many strands of plot that simply didn't have the same power and poignancy.

The tempestuous relationship between Maureen, a performance artist played by Christine Dwyer, and Joanne, played by Onyie Nwachukwu, simply didn't move me as much as the relationship between Roger and Mimi, the HIV-positive dancer and junkie, played by Jennifer Colby Talton. Although I did like the "Tango: Maureen" number between Joanne and Mark, Maureen's current and former lovers.

And a few things bugged me. I thought the character of Mark, the aspiring filmmaker played by Jed Resnick, was a little obnoxious. In some ways, I liked Mark. He's funny and cute. But he's not sick. He has a family that cares about him. His mother is always calling from Scarsdale. Maybe I'm turning into an old fart, but what gives him the right to think that he can squat in a building without paying rent?

Maybe I have this all wrong, but Mark and Maureen just seemed like middle class kids slumming in a poor neighborhood. It grated on me a little bit. (And there's a character of a bag lady who makes that exact point).

When Tom Collins, the philosophy professor and anarchist, boasts of breaking into an ATM and taking wads of cash, that made me pause. Whose money is he taking? He's taking the money of working people who have deposits in the bank, who'll probably have to pay higher fees to make up for the theft. Ok, maybe I'm thinking a little too hard about this.

One of the things I'd read about Rent before I saw it on stage was that it helped pave the way for rock-oriented shows like Spring Awakening. And when I saw the set: a brick wall, the microphones on stands and musicians on stage, I immediately thought of last year's Tony winner for best musical.

I can see why Rent is compared with Spring Awakening and, from an earlier generation, Hair. They're electrifying, exhilarating shows to watch. They all deal with pressing issues of their times - AIDS, homelessness, the draft and the war in Vietnam, teenage anxiety and sexuality. Perhaps Hair, being the most overtly political of the three, is the most dated.

The music of Rent, and its poignant, human stories of people falling in love and struggling with illness, gives the show a timeless quality. I found it very life-affirming and I'm glad I had a chance to see it on stage. Rent has had its season, and I'm sure, as seasons do, its time will come around again.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Straight for Equality

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
Rev. Martin Luther King
Letter from Birmingham Jail
April 16, 1963

I've had a link to Straight for Equality on my blog for a little while now, but I've never written anything about it. So today, Martin Luther King Day, seems like an appropriate time.

Straight for Equality is a national outreach effort sponsored by PFLAG. It's designed to empower "straight" allies for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people in three primary areas: home, workplace and community. If you go to the Web site, you'll find a list of things that you can do as an ally. They're as simple - and important - as speaking out when someone makes a bigoted joke or comment.

Too often, it's the bigots, the haters, who make the loudest noise and get the most attention. And the rhetoric can turn especially ugly during the campaign season. But in my opinion, they do not represent who we are as Americans or the values of equality and justice that we hold dear.

A study last year by the Pew Center for People & the Press found that 4 in 10 Americans have close friends or family members who are gay or lesbian. About half of all women, young people, college graduates, political liberals and mainline Protestants say that someone close to them is gay, the survey found. Yet too often, we don't speak up loudly enough for our friends, our neighbors, our coworkers and our family members. Someone has to tell the bigots that they're wrong.

If you're straight, and you wonder why you should care, well, I don't believe that it's solely the obligation of gays and lesbians to fight homophobia any more than it's the sole obligation of Jews to fight anti-Semitism or women to fight sexism or African-Americans and Latinos to fight racism. We all have an obligation to do what's right.

And this is not about your political views or religious beliefs, just as the civil rights movement for African-Americans was not about politics or religion. It's simply about equal rights for all Americans regardless of the sexual orientation they were born with. That includes right to be treated equally in the workplace, the right to live openly and be a full participant in society, the right to be free from fear, the right to marry the person you love.

When I was in high school, I had the honor of briefly meeting Coretta Scott King. It's an experience that I will never forget. Before she passed away, Mrs. King spoke eloquently on the connection between the fight for equal rights for African-Americans and for gays and lesbians. Her words are truly inspiring and worth remembering today.

Here's some of what she had to say:

“I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people.... But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said, 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.' I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream to make room at the table of brother- and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people.”

"Gay and lesbian people have families, and their families should have legal protection, whether by marriage or civil union. A constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages is a form of gay bashing, and it would do nothing at all to protect traditional marriages."

"Homophobia is like racism and anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry in that it seeks to dehumanize a large group of people, to deny their humanity, their dignity and personhood. This sets the stage for further repression and violence that spread all too easily to victimize the next minority group."

"Gays and lesbians stood up for civil rights in Montgomery, Selma, in Albany, Ga. and St. Augustine, Fla., and many other campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement. Many of these courageous men and women were fighting for my freedom at a time when they could find few voices for their own, and I salute their contributions."

"We have a lot more work to do in our common struggle against bigotry and discrimination. I say “common struggle” because I believe very strongly that all forms of bigotry and discrimination are equally wrong and should be opposed by right-thinking Americans everywhere. Freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation is surely a fundamental human right in any great democracy, as much as freedom from racial, religious, gender, or ethnic discrimination.''

"Like Martin, I don’t believe you can stand for freedom for one group of people and deny it to others."

"I've always felt that homophobic attitudes and policies were unjust and unworthy of a free society and must be opposed by all Americans who believe in democracy."

Putting a link on my blog isn't a very big or courageous act. I know it's not going to change the world. But one thing I've come to realize is that I get visitors from all over the United States, from all over the world. This is just one small way of showing where I stand. And if Martin Luther King Day means anything, it should be a day for rededicating ourselves to the fight for equal rights for all Americans.

It's a day, as Mrs. King wrote, to commemorate "the values of courage, truth, justice, compassion, dignity, humility and service that so radiantly defined Dr. King’s character and empowered his leadership.''

Forty-five years ago, Dr. King wrote that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." It's an eloquent statement that still rings true today.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

One hundred posts

This is my 100th post since I started Gratuitous Violins on Sept. 30, 2007. The number 100 is considered a milestone in the school year, in Congress and in presidential administrations, so why not in blogging?

When I check my statcounter, I'm amazed to see the places readers have come from - all over the United States and all over the world. Unfortunately, I haven't always been able to answer the question that brought them to my blog. So, to mark my 100th post, I'll try to answer some of them.

Which Broadway plays have stage doors?
I think they all do. The actors have to leave the theater somehow. Although sometimes they have ways of slipping out unnoticed. I never did see Frank Langella or Michael Sheen after Frost/Nixon. Sometimes the stage door is right next to the theater entrance, other times, it's around the corner in the back. If you're unsure, ask an usher, or just look for the metal barricade and a crowd of people clutching Playbills and Sharpies.

Broadway meeting the cast stage doors
If you have the time, you can and should go to the stage door after the show. Most of the actors will stop and sign autographs, pose for pictures and chat with you for a minute as you express your admiration for their performance.

Easy to meet David Hyde Pierce at the stage door?
Yes, it's very easy. I met him in April after a Friday night performance. He was very nice, signing my autograph and posing for a picture. I told him that Curtains was my first Broadway musical, and the previous evening, I'd seen my first Broadway play. He seemed genuinely interested and talked to me for a few minutes about the experience. In fact, the entire cast of Curtains is friendly and gracious and I loved the show. So definitely stop by, and tell David Hyde Pierce I said hello. He'll be in the show through Aug. 31.

Are jacket and tie required for going to the theatre in New York?
No, a jacket and tie are not required to see a show on Broadway. Sure, some people will be dressed up, especially if it's a weeknight and they've come from work. But generally, it's pretty casual. A nice shirt and pants are fine. You can wear whatever you want - some people come in jeans, sneakers, t-shirt. It doesn't matter. Nowadays, people dress for the theater pretty much like they dress for a movie. Maybe that's good, maybe that's bad, I don't know. But that's the way it is.

Swordfighting in Cyrano
Yes, there was swordfighting in Cyrano. It was my first time seeing swordfighting on stage, and it was great. Unfortunately, the show, with Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner, has closed. But don't despair: it was taped for airing on the PBS series Great Performances. There's no air date yet.

Lower East Side NYC dangerous
Hmmm, I don't know. I do know that crime is way, way down in New York City and I felt very safe and comfortable everywhere I went in Manhattan. As always, avoid unfamiliar, deserted places, especially at night, and especially if you're alone. But generally, the places where tourists venture in New York are safe, the subway is fine, and the people are incredibly friendly and helpful. As in any big city, or small town for that matter, just use common sense and keep your wits about you. So go, and have a great time.

Theme from Ice Castles
I guess this 1978 movie has lots of fans, because I've gotten a number of searches about it, including one for "hot sexy Lynn-Holly Johnson," who plays teenage figure skater Alexis Winston. Someone else wanted to know how the movie ends, but I don't want to give it away for anyone who hasn't seen it yet. The theme song is "Through the Eyes of Love." It was written by Carole Bayer Sager and Marvin Hamlisch, and garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Song. In the movie, it's sung by Melissa Manchester.

The 25h Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Vanessa Ray
Vanessa Ray plays Olive Ostrovsky in the touring production, which I saw in November. I loved the show, and I thought she was great as the shy and vulnerable Olive, waiting in vain for her father to come watch her at the spelling bee. Here's a short video of Ray talking about the role, and here's an interview.

Who invented the violin?
No one knows for sure. The violin owes its origins to many instruments, dating back to the ancient lyre. The violin emerged in its present form in northern Italy in the 16th century. According to this site, some theories hold that it could have been invented around 1520 A.D., since that was when the first painting including a violin was created, Madonna of the Orange Trees by Gaudenzio Ferrari.

Happy birthday on the violin?
I'm not sure about this one, since I don't actually play the violin, or any other musical instrument for that matter. But this might help. Click on the "play" button if you want to hear how it sounds.

Jerusalem food
Since so many Israelis trace their roots back to Middle Eastern countries, the food is much more kubbe, and not so much knishes. When I lived in Israel 10 years ago, it was hard to find a good bagel. If you want to learn more, Joan Nathan has written some great cookbooks on Jewish and Israeli food, including The Flavor of Jerusalem and The Foods of Israel Today. If you're planning a trip, here's a list of restaurants to check out. I'm not sure if it's there anymore, but one place I liked is The Yemenite Step.

Shalom Chaver
This is the phrase that former President Bill Clinton memorably uttered to eulogize Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995. It's Hebrew for "goodbye friend." The phrase, and variations, such as "friend, you are missed," and "friend, I remember," became popular ways for Israelis to remember Rabin. It's also the name of CD from a memorial concert held in Rabin's memory in Jerusalem and featuring many well-known Israeli musicians.

Some of the questions stumped me: sentimental ideas for a 40th birthday party, (I can't think of any off the top of my head) using the musical Wicked in wedding speeches, (I guess it's ok. My suggestion would be to check out the "For Good" lyrics) and the length of Debra Monk's contract in Curtains. (I have no idea).

However you found my blog, thanks for stopping by. Hopefully, the first 100 posts are only the beginning.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Fun and games

One good thing about the Internet is that old Web sites never die, or even fade away. They're just one click a way from being rediscovered.

This is a little dated, but there's a trivia game at the Web site for the PBS documentary series Broadway: The American Musical. Unfortunately, it appears that the questions are pretty much the same no matter which musical you select, so you'd probably only want to play it once.

In addition to the game you can vote for your favorite musical. You're limited to the list on the site, but Cats is in the lead with 19 percent. It's followed by West Side Story, 14 percent, The Lion King, 12 percent, and A Chorus Line, 10 percent.

You can also find profiles of anyone who's had anything to do with American musical theater, a history of Broadway over the last century, and a section where people have written about their memories of seeing a Broadway show.

Whether you've seen the series and loved it, as I have, or even if you've never seen it, there's a lot to check out.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Forgotten Broadway

There's a great article on the Jewish culture Web site NextBook about a largely forgotten musical.

While composer Jerry Herman is well-known for his scores of Hello, Dolly! and La Cage Aux Folles, there probably aren't too many people who can recall his first musical, Milk and Honey. It opened on Broadway in October 1961 and ran for 543 performances, and was nominated for five Tony Awards.

Writer Alisa Solomon describes the plot of Milk and Honey as an upbeat comedy about a pair of middle-aged American tourists who meet in Israel and fall in love with each other and with the 13-year-old Jewish state.

Solomon writes that it was "a sweet show in the old romantic mold of The King and I or My Fair Lady, but it’s most worth remembering today for the innocent way in which it captured the na├»ve and celebratory foundation of many American Jews' love affair with their putative homeland."

From Solomon's description, Milk and Honey sounds a bit like the movie version of Exodus, an idealized, overly sentimental portrait of Israel. Of course, it was written during a more idealistic time, when the connection between American Jews and Israel was stronger. Still, it sounds pretty interesting on two fronts: as a piece of musical theater history and for what it says about how American Jews viewed Israel in the early 1960s - a land of strong, tanned, brave pioneers making the desert bloom.

I've listened to some short samples of some of the songs, and I have to say, they don't sound very much like Israeli music. Solomon says that "for the most part, the show favors the pop conventions of Broadway’s heyday — pleasant, melodious tunes and perky lyrics, evident in the show’s love ballads and marches and in every musical Herman would go on to write."

A CD of the Broadway score did come out, but unfortunately, it's out of print. A used copy at Amazon is selling for $144.99. That's a bit steep for nostalgia!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

What I've been watching

Here are a few of my recent Netflix rentals. I'd recommend all of them.

Ace in the Hole:
This 1951 black-and-white Billy Wilder film stars Kirk Douglas as a cynical, hard-bitten newspaperman (Is there any other kind?) whose career has hit the skids. He finds himself in a dead-end job at a small New Mexico newspaper and dreams of the story that will get him back to the big time. He gets his chance when a man is trapped in a mine while hunting for Indian artifacts. No one seems to be in a big hurry to rescue the poor guy. The effort to free him becomes a tourist attraction and a media circus. His wife would just as soon have him gone, and is thrilled that business at her roadside cafe has boomed since the accident. Douglas' character uses the man's plight to further his own ambition in a way that is incredibly unbelievable and immoral. I can't imagine any reporter acting that way. Still, I think that Ace in the Hole raises some uncomfortable but still-relevant issues about the relationship between reporters and the stories they cover, and how we've become a nation of gawkers.

Hot Fuzz:
I watched this because actor and cowriter Simon Pegg was a guest at the taping of The Late Show With David Letterman that I attended in April. Pegg plays a straight-arrow London police officer who does such a good job of rounding up the bad guys that he makes everyone else on the force look bad. As a result, he's banished to a picturesque village where nothing ever happens. But as anyone who's ever read Agatha Christie knows, some nasty things can go on in quaint English villages. There's a little too much blood and gore for me by the end of Hot Fuzz. But Pegg, who'll play Scotty in the new Star Trek movie, is very funny as his by-the-book approach clashes with the live-and-let-live attitude of the locals.

The Namesake: I loved Jhumpa Lahiri's novel about two generations of an Indian-American family, so I was really looking forward to the movie version. There's something about immigrant stories that I find really appealing, especially when it involves immigrant parents and their American-born children. Maybe it's the whole clash of cultures, the way that children often rebel against their parents' traditions at first, and then eventually find value in them. Bollywood veterans Irfan Khan and Tabu are the husband and wife in an arranged marriage who leave Calcutta to make a new life in the suburbs of New York City. Kal Penn is their son, Gogol Ganguli, who at various times tries to run from and embrace his heritage, as well as his unusual first name. While the story on screen isn't nearly as multilayered as the book, it's still pretty good.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Coming to a bookstore near you

When I go to a movie, I love watching the previews of coming attractions. I knew that some authors had started using trailers to promote their books, but until now, I hadn't paid much attention to them.

When done well, I think a trailer can give you a really good idea of the world the author has created. This week, I found one for Adam Langer's new novel, Ellington Boulevard, about New York City's real estate boom and how it affects one small apartment. I'm a big fan of Langer's debut novel, Crossing California, and I've written before how much I'm looking forward to Ellington Boulevard, which comes out out on Tuesday. The trailer made me even more eager.

Langer, who narrates the 3-minute trailer, has a nice chatty style, as he describes the characters in the novel and shows us around the neighborhood on the upper Upper West Side of Manhattan where the action takes place.

In 2006, the British newspaper The Guardian interviewed Steve Osgoode, director of online marketing for HarpeCollins Canada, about the growth of book trailers. They "work better for some titles than others, books that have really powerful and broad images associated with them."

The motivation "is to drive early word of mouth," Osgoode told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The idea is to "capture the spirit and feel of the book without imposing a lot of key elements — like the look and feel of characters and settings — onto the reader. I think, because of that, we’re getting that much more support from authors.”

One of HarperCollins' trailers is for Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union, a book that I have in my to-read pile. It's a mystery novel set in the late 1940s in a fictitious, Yiddish-speaking Jewish homeland in Alaska.

In this trailer, an unidentified narrator reads an excerpt in the style of a hard-boiled detective story. It certainly gets you into the mood of the novel. The accompanying graphics are nice, but unfortunately, we don't get to hear from the author. Some pictures of Chabon traipsing around Alaska while he did research for the book would have been nice.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

August company

This appeals to the theater geek and history buff in me.

I was so excited when I saw LoveMusik at the Biltmore Theatre last spring and realized I would be sitting in the very same place where Hair opened on Broadway in April 1968. I was listening to "Surabaya Johnny," but every once in awhile thinking about the dawning of the age of Aquarius.

Since then, from time to time I've browsed the Internet Broadway Database to see which actors trod the boards at theaters where I've been, and what shows opened there. The Imperial Theatre, currently home to August: Osage County, has in the past been home to Dreamgirls, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret and Gypsy.

One thing I didn't realize is that shows sometimes switch theaters, or at least they did in the past. Fiddler's 3,242 performances, between 1964 and 1972, were split among the Imperial, the Majestic and the Broadway theaters.

In 1944, 20-year-old Marlon Brando made his Broadway debut at The Music Box, playing Nels in I Remember Mama. It was the same stage where I saw Deuce with Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes, and The Farnsworth Invention.

Kevin Spacey won his Tony award in 1991, for Best Featured Actor in a Play, as Uncle Louie in Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers, at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. It's the same place where I saw Kevin Kline in Cyrano in November.

And Spacey made his Broadway debut at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in 1982, playing Liv Ullmann's son in Ghosts. Twenty-five years later, I sat in the second row at the same theater to see Spacey and Eve Best in A Moon for the Misbegotten - my first Broadway show.

Monday, January 14, 2008

My Israel

On his trip to Israel last week, President Bush made the obligatory stop at Yad Vashem, the country's memorial to victims of the Holocaust. His visit reminded me of two things.

The first was something I heard from my tour guide during my first trip to Israel, in 1995. At the time, an official from some country, I've forgotten which one, had balked at visiting Yad Vashem, and it caused an uproar. Our guide told my tour group, "Why should we force anyone to see our tears?"

The second is something I read years ago in New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's excellent book on the Middle East, From Beirut to Jerusalem. Friedman was lamenting that while all foreign dignitaries visit Yad Vashem, no one visits Degania, Israel's first kibbutz.

I realize that no one forced President Bush to go to Yad Vashem. I'm glad he went. I've been there twice, so I know it's a very moving experience. It's a vital reminder of the need to confront evil and bigotry everywhere, and of the need for a strong and secure Jewish state.

Standing on the grounds of Yad Vashem, you get a commanding view of Jerusalem. I remember looking down at the city and thinking about what Israel has accomplished. In spite of war and terrorism, it remains a vibrant, thriving, modern country. At times it's noisy, quarrelsome and far from perfect, but it's a democracy. It's the Israel I wish more Americans could see. For a great collection of blog postings about everyday life in Israel, check out Israelity.

These are some of my favorite places to see and things to do:

In Jerusalem, I like to stroll through Machane Yehuda, a bustling open-air marketplace, where you can rub shoulders with people of all backgrounds and get all kinds of food, the Ben Yehuda Street midrechov, the city's downtown pedestrian mall, with its mix of ethnic restaurants, outdoor cafes and American fast-food chains, and the maze-like streets of the Old City. While both Machane Yehuda and the midrechov have been the site of terrorist attacks, they are living proof of the resiliency of Israeli life.

In Tel Aviv, where I lived for a year, I liked walking on the Tayelet, a promenade along the Mediterranean, Dizengoff Street, the main shopping area, trendy Sheinkin Street, sometimes referred to as the city's Greenwich Village, and HaYarkon Park, the city's answer to Central Park. My first evening in Israel, our tour group ate at a seafood restaurant overlooking the port of Jaffa, and from that vantage point, Israel seemed like the most beautiful, peaceful place on earth. Plus, you get a breathtaking view of the Tel Aviv skyline, pictured above.

There is much, much more that I could mention.

I loved visiting the national park at Ein Gedi, near the Dead Sea, and climbing up to the waterfall at Nahal David. According to Jewish tradition, it's the place where David hid from the wrath of King Saul. In northern Israel, I've walked through Safed, a center for the study of Jewish mysticism that's also become an artists colony.

I've been as far north as Kibbutz Hanita, near the border with Lebanon, and as far south as Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, named for a leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and which was the scene of bitter fighting during the 1948 War of Independence. I've stood on the Golan Heights and dipped my toes in the Red Sea during a visit to Eilat, on Israel's southernmost tip.

I admit that my list isn't what comes to mind when you think of visiting Israel - it's a little low on religion. I've been to all the Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, including the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Via Dolorosa. I've taken an evening cruise on the Sea of Galilee, known in Hebrew as Lake Kinneret.

But for me, the truly spiritual experiences were the everyday ones: shopping, sitting in restaurants, visiting museums, celebrating holidays, walking everywhere, going to work, studying Hebrew at an ulpan with students from all over the world. It was getting to know a country that had been born in the wake of unspeakable evil and against all odds, had flourished.

To me, there are at least three Israels - the Holy Land of Christian pilgrims; Eretz Yisrael, the biblical Land of Israel of religious Jews; and Medinat Yisrael, the modern, secular State of Israel in which most Israelis live. My Israel may not be everyone's, but it's mine.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Adventures in video

Since I'm experimenting with including video on my blog, and I love the Tony-winning musical Spring Awakening, I thought I'd try to post this short clip of the cast singing "I Believe," taken at the time of last fall's Broadway stagehands strike.

Wouldn't it have been great to be walking by the Eugene O'Neill Theatre and see the amazingly talented John Gallagher Jr., and some of his castmates, giving an impromptu concert! (Ok, if you had tickets and couldn't see Spring Awakening because of the strike, that wouldn't have been so great.)

Anyway, now that Gallagher has left the show, his fans are probably experiencing a little bit of withdrawal pain. I hope this helps!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Waiting to get Lost

Lost is one of my favorite television dramas and I'm eagerly awaiting its return at 9 p.m. on Jan. 31 on ABC. Eight episodes were filmed before the writers' strike shut down production.

It took me awhile to start watching the series. Despite an overwhelming amount of hype, I resisted throughout the first season. I just figured, what was the point? I watched Gilligan's Island as a kid. I knew how every episode was going to turn out - the plane crash survivors weren't going to get off that island, otherwise the show would end. Where was the suspense?

But a friend had Season 1 on DVD, so I gave it a try. I was immediately hooked by the way the back stories of all the crash survivors slowly unfolded. I liked spotting some of the interconnections between the characters in their former lives, and trying to figure out what all of the island's mysteries meant.

Plus, there definitely a cinematic quality to the way Lost is shot. Visually, it's at times very stunning. I think you could easily take the subtitled flashbacks that tell the story of Jin and Sun, the Korean husband and wife played by Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim, string them together, and make it into a movie all on its own.

I think Lost has lost its way a little over the subsequent years. While I love mysteries, I'm not too enamored of the supernatural turn the story has taken. Sometimes I wish the plot would just move along. Characters are introduced who don't seem to play a big part in advancing things, and then they're gone. In the beginning, I figured that the creators had the whole series mapped out from start to finish. Then I began to wonder.

I'm sure I'll be writing more about Lost. But since there are still 19 days before Season 4 begins, here are a few interesting links that I found:

Damon Lindelof, the show's co-creator and executive producer, contributes an essay to the Why We Write series at Deadline Hollywood Daily. Here's part of what he has to say: "I write because I can’t help but make things up. I write because I love to tell stories. I write because my imagination compels me to do so."

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Matthew Fox talks about the surprise at the end of Season 3, in which we learned that Fox's Jack and Evangeline Lilly's Kate eventually make it to safety. "It really caught me off guard. I'm not sure I ever thought that people were going to get off the island," he says.

The 33-second trailer for Season 4 is tantalizing: there's a teaser that says "February 2008 - rescue arrives. Or has it?" Michael Emerson's Ben intones ominously, "Every person on this island will be killed." (Well, we know that Jack and Kate weren't killed becuase we saw them off the island in the flash forward at the end of last season.) Here's a slightly longer sneak peek from the season premiere. It clearly sounds like help is about to arrive, as Jack assures Kate that "we're really going home."

Are they? Eventually, yes. But I wouldn't count on it happened right away. I know there are only eight episodes filmed so far, but I hope this season we get some more answers, and not just more questions.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The best musicals I've never seen

Something that Eric at Man in Chair wrote got me thinking. He says that Sunday in the Park With George is one of his favorite scores, but he's never seen the show, something he hopes to rectify when the London revival comes to Broadway.

My passionate interest in musical theater is a pretty recent phenomenon, so I don't have a long list of original Broadway cast CDs that I've been listening to forever, hoping for the day when I could watch the show performed on stage. But I do have a list, and it's growing longer all the time.

Before last year, the CDs or albums in my collection were the soundtracks from movie musicals I watched on television as a kid, like Oklahoma, The King and I, The Sound of Music and Camelot. Or they were from movies I saw in the theater, like Cabaret, or Evita. In a few instances, they were the Broadway cast CDs from shows I saw on tour, like Les Miserables or A Chorus Line.

(Growing up, my favorite musical was that I'm pretty sure never made it to a stage anywhere, a 1968 Disney movie called The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band. set against the backrop of the presidential election of 1888. It starred John Davidson and Lesley Anne Warren, and featured songs by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, of Mary Poppins fame.)

What ties all this together is, I started listening to the music after seeing the show in some fashion. In fact, I can really only think of one score that I listened to long before I ever saw it on stage or in the movies, and that's Hair. I eventually saw it on tour, and I've seen the movie. (There were many others, like Evita or Gypsy, where I was certainly familiar with some of the songs, even though I'd never seen them performed).

Now, there's a growing list of CDs I have in my collection even though I may never get to see the shows on stage: Merrily We Roll Along, Company, The Lion King, (well I did see the movie, but I don't think that counts) The Wedding Singer, (that comes off the list next month!) and The Last 5 Years.

At the top of my list is Assassins, which may be my favorite Stephen Sondheim score. I mean who would ever think you could write such memorable songs about such a grim subject. It's really like a trip through 150 years of American popular music. Plus, the lyrics make some very perceptive statements about our obsession with violence and our celebrity culture.

Unfortunately, I think Assassins is one of those shows that isn't put on very often, so I'll probably never see it on stage. Although thanks to the Internet, I've seen a couple of clips from the revival.

And there are lots of other CDs I want to check out, either because I'm interested in the period in which they take place, like Caroline, or Change and Ragtime, or because I read and loved the books that they're based on, like Little Women or The Secret Garden, or because I love the cast, (anything with Audra McDonald).

I guess some scores hold up better than others if you're going to listen to them on their own, without having seen the show. Just listening to Les Miserables or Evita gives you a good sense of the story. You could simply listen to the score as a collection of beautiful songs, like The Last 5 Years, or just because they're catchy pop tunes, like The Wedding Singer. Either way, my collection is growing.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

One more piece of the rock

I was happy to read that one of my favorite series, 30 Rock, is coming back with a fresh episode tonight. Unfortunately, my joy will be shortlived. It's the last show in the can before the writers' strike shut down production.

Here's how the New York Post describes the plot:

Jack (Alec Baldwin) and his new girlfriend, C.C. (Edie Falco), trying to make their long-distance relationship work, all while Jack negotiates a megadeal with a German cable conglomerate.

Liz (Tina Fey), meanwhile, invests in real estate, but first has to deal with the angst-ridden experience of appearing before a co-op board to lobby for an apartment she really wants.

Behind-the-scenes, the always peppy Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) gets hooked on caffeine (he calls it "the devil's temperature") from the cappuccino machine Tracy (Tracy Morgan) buys for his show staffers.

As I've said before, I think 30 Rock is even funnier this year than it was in its first season. The cast seems to find themselves in even more outrageous situations, the writing seems witter, the satire sharper.

Despite winning an Emmy for best comedy last season, 30 Rock has struggled with low ratings. I really think show hit its stride in the fall, and it would be a shame if this week's episode was the last one in a strike-shortened season.