Monday, November 20, 2017

It's Always Something

I recently saw the musical Something Rotten!.  It was enjoyable enough, but there was a built-in problem.

The story is set in 1590s England, where two brothers try to present plays but can't compete with Shakespeare.  So they decide to put on a musical.  (There was music in Shakespeare's plays, of course, but I guess that's not quite the same thing as a full-blown musical.)

It's a comedy, and the plot isn't really meant to be taken seriously.  But you should at least be able to get involved enough in the story to care about the characters.  However, much--perhaps most--of the humor is based on anachronism, so you're constantly being taken out of the show.

Anachronisms can create easy laughs, but are probably best kept to short comedy bits.  A show that asks you to invest two-and-a-half hours in the story and characters should demand more.

I would guess over half the jokes are based on our awareness (and sometimes the characters' awareness) of life now versus life then.  And quite a few of the big laughs are simply references to modern Broadway musicals in an Elizabethan setting.

There have been plenty of period musicals, but they work a lot better if you believe, on some level, in the story.  Look at Hamilton, the biggest hit on Broadway.  The show may be performed in a modern idiom, but the characters take their situation very seriously, and we believe in them.

And that doesn't change with knockabout comedy.  Consider a show like A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, a farce set in ancient Rome.  The characters have problems to deal with, and the problems are real, while none of their jokes or situations are out of place for the time period.  (The book writers, Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove based their work on Roman playwright Plautus.  They made sure to avoid anachronistic jokes, though they would have been easy enough to make.  (The same goes for Stephen Sondheim's lyrics.)  Their original lead Zero Mostel allegedly drove them to distraction with his ad libs, including lines they would never allow, like, referring to wine, "Was 1 a good year?")

So I don't think you could call Something Rotten! a classic. Even the silliest show needs something more.

PS  There were also a lot of near-rhymes that weren't pleasant to the ear.  This is apparently the new standard.  We get the same thing in The Book Of Mormon (though Mormon, even with its outrageous comic plot, takes its story and its characters seriously).

PPS  Something Rotten! is also another one of those musicals that's aware it's a musical.  A surprising number of shows are like this.  Can't say it's a good trend.

Sunday, November 19, 2017


I'm not the biggest fan of country music, but Mel Tillis, who just died, certainly made his mark.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

A Death In The Cinefamily

Sad news.  The Cinefamily, which for years has been showing rare films, old and new, has officially shut down.

It exhibited its discoveries at the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax, just south of Melrose.  The theatre itself opened around 75 years ago--well into the sound era--and showed only silent films. (It's said Chaplin would sneak in and watch his classics).

It closed down for a while, then reopened in the 90s, not long after I moved to Los Angeles, and once again specialized in silent films. It was just down the block from me.  Then the proprietor was murdered during a showing, but that's another story.

It changed hands a couple times and a decade ago was taken over by Cinefamily, a group dedicated to spreading the love and excitement of film.  I became a member and attended fairly regularly.

I'm sure I saw over a hundred films there.  It was a lovely spot, with a nice patio out back where you could hang out before of after most shows.

However, in August they shut down when two of its leaders were forced to resign in a sexual harassment scandal.  I was hoping they'd reopen, but it appears they've decided to cease operations.

It's partly due to the damage of the scandal, though the non-profit group was also in debt, and I guess they figured it was time to go.

Here's hoping some new owner will open up and start showing films again.  Hey, Quentin Tarantino owns the New Beverly Theatre around the corner--maybe he'd like to open up a second spot.

Friday, November 17, 2017

For Lorne

Lorne Michaels turns 73 today.  Is there anyone who's had more effect on comedy in the past half century?

I was aware of Michaels before most Americans, because, growing up in Detroit, I saw him on TV as part of the comedy team Hart and Lorne. They were the younger, hipper version of the Canadian institution Wayne and Shuster.

He came to America and, as a comedy writer, worked on various shows in the late 60s and early 70s, including Laugh-In, and picked up an Emmy for a Lily Tomlin special.  He'd go on to win quite a few more, due to the show he invented in 1975, Saturday Night Live.

He came up with the concept, he cast it, he refined it, he argued with the network about it, he turned it into a hit. Then, after five seasons, he quit.  He'd done as much as he could, he probably figured, and wanted to try other things.

And he did other things, but none were as successful as SNL. The show continued without him, though it wasn't quite the same (and if it didn't have Eddie Murphy then one wonders if it would have even continued).  By the mid-80s it was faltering, and Michaels returned to set it right.

He's been running SNL ever since.  No show has created so many stars, and I would guess no show has been as responsible for so many funny moments.  (And no show has so regularly heard it's not funny like it used to be.)

He's also grown an empire from it, producing movies based on sketches or created by those who worked on the show, as well as producing quite a few TV shows, including The Kids In The Hall, Late Night With Conan O'Brien's, 30 Rock, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and Portlandia.

But really, he'll be remembered for SNL.  And that should be enough for anyone.

Thursday, November 16, 2017


I've been reading Stephen Galloway's Leading Lady, about Sherry Lansing, the first woman to head a major studio.

It's going along fine and then in chapter 6, Lansing is struck by a car while crossing Wilshire Boulevard.  The year is 1978.  She's rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center:

After an MRI revealed her skull was fractured, a four-hour surgery ensued...

Really?  In the late 70s, MRIs were still in the experimental stage.  I don't think they became regularly available in hospitals until the 1980s, and even then they were rare. I recognize Cedars-Sinai is a leading hospital, and a studio executive like Lansing would have gotten the best care available, but still.

So, unless I'm mistaken, either some source gave Galloway bad information or he just assumed they used an MRI.  Either way, someone should have looked into it before it got into print.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Yates Prates

There's a new London production of David Mamet's Pulitzer Prize-winning Glengarry Glen Ross, starring Christian Slater.

It's a very entertaining play, and doesn't need to be propped up by claims of relevance. Sure, it's relevant, as is any work that demonstrates in a gripping manner how people act, but as with any revival, those behind it feel the need to bang the drum and say it's amazingly prescient and more meaningful than ever.

Usually, the facile claim about this particular piece is it reveals the dark underpinnings of capitalism.  But with Hollywood scandals in the news, director Sam Yates is trying a somewhat new tack:

What's interesting about the play is Mamet's dealing with a kind of toxic masculinity.  It's men all thrown together and you see dreadful behavior--you see the dreadful behavior of men who have power over others.

I think this misses the point.  These are desperate men who have precious little power.  Even those who seem to have some power are afraid of losing it.

It may be a fine production.  But Yates' comments don't give one confidence.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Everywhere A Sign

I was recently walking by a house with a sign in the yard that contained a bunch of political slogans, including "No human is illegal" and "Science Is Real."

Let's ignore that these are trendy, mindless phrases that don't really say anything beyond letting people know what side you're on.

Here's what I want to know.  Why would any people feel the need to put up such a sign? Are they worried that passersby will walk down the sidewalk thinking "I wonder if the people inside this house have their minds right on immigration?--their stance isn't certain so I'm going to assume evil things of them."

Do these people actually believe this will convince anyone of anything beyond the fact they've got an obnoxious sign in their yard announcing their politics?

It might be fun to live across from them and put up your own sign, saying--I don't know, how about "signs are stupid." And when they tear that down, put up "vandal are intolerant despite what their signs might lead you to believe."

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