Monday, July 28, 2014

The Show's The Thing

Ethan Mordden is a busy guy. He's written numerous tomes on popular culture, including a book on the American Musical for every decade from the 20s through the 70s.  Which is why his latest, Anything Goes: A History Of The American Musical Theatre, seems superfluous.  He's already gone over this material and then some.

Still, it's nice to have something new from Mordden, and this whirlwind tour of 150+ years of musicals in under 350 pages has its moments.  As always, he knows his stuff, even if he's often quite subjective, occasionally putting down big names and fighting for forgotten classics.

As anyone who's read him already knows, he separates this history into four different eras.  There's the First Age, where prototypical musicals--operetta, burlesque, minstrel shows, etc.--were developed in the 19th century; the Second Age, where names like Cohan, Ziegfeld, Kern and Berlin created a form that would become so much more; the Third Age, about fifty years in the middle of the 20th century when the musical becomes a unique work of art as well as central to American entertainment; and finally the Fourth Age, after pop music has left Broadway behind, and the musical has become sometimes more intellectualized, sometimes more sung-through spectacle.  The divisions are reasonable, I suppose, though the problem is the Thrd Age has by far the most interesting songs and shows.

Overall, like much of Mordden's work, it's idiosyncratic enough that I'm not sure this would be a first-tier choice if you want a good overview of the subject.  And while he still has some good tales to tell, if you've read his earlier stuff, this seems too concentrated, with titles whizzing by in a page,or sometimes a sentence, that were given a more luxurious treatment when he had the time.  Still, if you like the subject, it's an enthusiastic work, better than a lot of the stuff out there.

Singer In The Hands Of An Angry Mood

Happy birthday, Jonathan Edwards, singer-songwriter from the 70s.  He had only one hit, but he's still working to this day.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Wait Till The Lollipop Guild Hears About This

I saw MGM's Greatest Musicals: The Arthur Freed Unit by Hugh Fordin in the local library and checked it out.  It was published in 1975 (though the paperback version I read was put out in 1996 by Da Capo Press) but I hadn't seen it before.  It's quite enjoyable, with plenty of illustrations and intriguing background tales of how Freed and his people made some of the greatest movie musicals ever.

In the first chapter dealing with how the Unit started, concentrating on The Wizard Of Oz, we get this regarding the Munchkins:

These 350 midgets--where did they come from? [....] they were the most deformed, unpleasant bunch of "adults" imaginable. [....] they were constantly underfoot.  This unholy assemblage of pimps, hookers and gamblers infested the Metro lot and all of the community.

Somehow, I don't think you'd see this sort of description today.  In fact, I'm surprised Fordin got away with it in the 70s.


Happy birthday, Harvey Fuqua.  He was the founder of and singers in the great doo-wop group the Moonglows and also one of the early executives at Motown.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

It's Not The Translator Who's The Traitor

In The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik looks at the issue of translation. Many claim it's impossible to properly translate the sense of one language into another.  They go further--with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis--claiming that your language helps determine your worldview.

Gopnik (and John McWhorter, in his recent book The Language Hoax, which Gopnik discusses), will have none of it.  Yes, meanings can be subtle, but there's no insuperable gulf that prevents us from understanding others.  I tend to agree. But that's not why I'm writing this post.

Gopnik gets to Orwell, who so famously wrote about how those in power use language to fool the public and hide what they're doing.  That's when we get this from Gopnik:

...euphemism is a moral problem, not a cognitive one. When Dick Cheney calls torture “enhanced interrogation,” it doesn’t make us understand torture in a different way; it’s just a means for those who know they’re doing something wrong to find a phrase that doesn’t immediately acknowledge the wrongdoing. [....] Whatever name Cheney’s men gave torture, they knew what it was.

This isn't a linguistics argument so much as a political slam. It's certainly not a political argument, since Gopnik apparently believes his statement is so obviously true (or so unlikely to be debated by New Yorker readers) that he doesn't have to present any evidence.

What is or isn't torture--legally or morally--is a tricky enough issue.  But Gopnik's arrogance goes much further.  He apparently has direct access to minds of Dick Cheney and his men.

Here's some advice for Gopnik. If you're going to use politics for some intellectual example, try something that either praises George W. Bush or attacks Barack Obama.  Going against your instincts will prevent you from fooling yourself.

Standard Error

I was watching Masters Of Sex (which I've complained about before) with the CC on.  It said the song "Let's Fall In Love" was playing.  But I also had the sound on so knew that was wrong.

What we heard was Billie Holiday singing Cole Porter's "Let's Do It," sometimes called "Let's Do It (Let's Fall In Love)."

"Let's Fall In Love," by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, is a completely different song.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Lucky Lucy

Lucy, starring Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman, directed by Luc Besson, opens today.  Don't know much about it, but the poster says "The average person uses 10% of their brain capacity.  Imagine what she could do with 100%." (One thing she could do is remember the plot of Limitless from 2011, which had the same premise.)

I've always been intrigued by this weird urban legend that we only use 10% of our brains. Though it makes no sense, I've been hearing it pretty much all my life.  I've even met a number of people who believe it.  And it keeps popping up in popular culture (where at least it can lead to a fun, if absurd, plot).

Considering there are pretty easy sources available (in addition to common sense) that refute this claim, I can only conclude that people are using less than 10% of the capacity of their computers.

Something Happening With Blane

It's the centennial of Ralph Blane, great American songwriter.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Treading The Boards

Just read Derek Jacobi's memoir As Luck Would Have It.  Jacobi is one of the top British actors of our age, but he doesn't have quite the recognition of a contemporary like, say, Ian McKellen.  Probably because he never had a major film career.

His book is a whirlwind tour.  At a bit over 300 pages it reads quickly, divided into the "Seven Ages" of life, broken up into 46 chapters, each one divided into short sections.

He knew he wanted to be an actor at a young age and played major roles as a schoolboy.  He went to Cambridge where his talent was recognized and he soon was playing with Sir Laurence Olivier at the National Theatre in London.  He'd go on to be a leading man and make a worldwide reputation in the title role of the BBC series I, Claudius.  But he remained a man of the theatre.  As he puts it, "movies make you rich, TV makes you known, but theatre is really where it's at."

And when he was growing up, theatre meant Shakespeare.  Yes, he played many roles, some classical, some modern, but whenever your read British theatrical memoirs there's the Bard of Avon--they take in his words with their mother's milk.  Jacobi tells us about many productions, good and bad, and how he made his mark in certain roles, such as Hamlet, Benedick, Prospero, Malvolio and Lear.  He also got a lot of attention for his Cyrano, Uncle Vanya and Alan Turing in Breaking The Code.

He did appear in movies--Kenneth Branagh's Henry V and Hamlet, Dead Again, Gladiator, Gosford Park, The King's Speech and many others--but he never quite got that role that introduced him to the contemporary audience.

We meet all the big names along the way--Olivier, Gielgud, Michael Redgrave, Maggie Smith, Dame Edith Evans, Peter O'Toole and many others. He also has a chapter where he mentions the political players he met (which includes a bit on his personal politics--without fail the most tiresome section in all such books).  Threaded through is stuff on his homosexuality, but though it played a central part in his life, he doesn't allow it to overwhelm the book.  In general, he comes across as an unassuming guy who is able to bring something special to his roles.

I've seen film of his work in the theatre, but I've never seen him live.  As great as he was in I, Claudius, I get the feeling that's the best way to see him.  Part of the magic of theatre is its evanescence, and while Jacobi has left a little of him behind in his book, I bet he's happiest he left so much behind on stage.

Les Then Lou

Happy birthday Les Reed.  He was a musician and arranger but best of all, a songwriter, with plenty of hits in Britain and some that also made it over here.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Breaches in the matrix

So last Saturday ColumbusGal and I visited good friends in Cincinnati who just bought a house, to help move some furniture and have a nice dinner in their newly remodeled kitchen with them and some other friends.

The conversation turned to buyer beware, and remarkable though it seems we couldn't remember the Latin (hard to believe but bear with me), and someone brought up the Brady Bunch episode--but we still couldn't remember it.

So Sunday, ColumbusGal is lounging around, like Peggy in Married with Children, eating bonbons and watching METV, and lo what comes up but an episode of the Brady Bunch, and guess which episode it is?

Go ahead, LAGuy, tell me that's recency bias.

Today I'm needing some utility blades and some orange juice so I walk up to the hardware store and handy mart, and on my way back, I notice a new food truck. We have a longstanding food truck nearby, one of the best in the city, but he works only Friday to Sunday. A bit worried about the interloper, and worried that I might waste away if I don't eat something, I buy a couple of sliders (pretty good) and pay with my bank card.

This is my only contact with them, and they accept payment on some Ipad or another device, and the first words out of the girl's mouth are, "I sent your receipt to your pajamaguy address." (Okay, she didn't say pajamaguy, but she gave a unique domain with which I am associated.)

So their only contact with me is my bank. So my bank gives out my email address? Pretty creepy. Facebook, of course. If I'm dumb enough to use that I get what I deserve. But my bank? (Unless Facebook bought my bank . . .)

Developing Story

Though it was made available on Netflix last year, I only just watched season 4 of Arrested Development.  The show, a critical hit that won several Emmys, including Best Comedy, was on Fox for three seasons previously from 2003 to 2006.  It was never a hit, but it had a strong cult following.

Including me.  So I was excited when I heard there'd be new shows.  And after watching it, I'm a bit surprised at the relatively tepid response from many critics. I thought it was great.

Perhaps this is due to the phenomenon that once something is deemed a classic, fans always say the latest episodes aren't as good as the old ones.  This is even truer after a show goes on a lengthy hiatus.  When John Cleese came back four years later with a second season of Fawlty Towers there were plenty of complaints it didn't compare, but if you come to the show fresh, the second season is the stronger one.

Not that I'm in favor of just any comeback.  Some shows are about a place and time, and the magic can never be recaptured.  Which makes AD4 all the more amazing.  First, everyone is back--all the original leads, not to mention numerous recurring characters (plus some new guest stars like Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, John Slattery, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Terry Crews, Tommy Tune and Isla Fisher, not to mention a reunion of the MST3K gang)--even though many of these people have gone on to movies or other hit shows.  Even more important, creator Mitch Hurwitz is behind it, along with other writers who made the original great, such as Jim Vallely and Richard Rosenstock.

The format is a bit different.  There are 15 episodes, but they tend to be longer than normal sitcom episodes--most are more than 30 minutes long, with no commercial breaks.  And the whole season deals with one basic story--a complicated, multi-part story, but one all the same.  What I think threw a lot of commentators was that each episode centers on just one character. Every one of the nine leads--Michael, Lindsay, Gob, George Michael, Maeby, Buster, Tobias, George Sr., and Lucille--gets at least one episode devoted to their travails.

This has a cumulative effect, as we go over the same events from different points of view, revealing more and more of the story each time.  In fact, the whole thing is almost bewilderingly complex.  It reminded me of nothing so much as the novel Catch-22, when you keep going back and forth, and returning to the same moments but with a different understanding each time.  It's also similar in that problem no one keep the entire plot in their brain at one time.

But forget that. Is the show funny?  Yes, very.  As funny as the original three seasons? Hmm. Maybe slightly less joke dense (though that may just be the halo effect), but still funnier than most of the shows out there right now.  (The original show was probably too joke-dense and just a little cold, which may explain why it never really caught on.)

I do have one big problem.  There are numerous schemes, generally regarding money or love, and every character is trying to accomplish something. But the season has no ending. I thought it was coming to some sort of climax--probably Cinco De Cuatro celebration where everyone gathers--but we're mostly left dangling.  With so little resolved, is Hurwitz planning another season?  Or a movie to tie it up?  Maybe, but I still think he should have done it all here.  Who knows if everyone can get together again?

PS  All the actors are in fighting trim.  The only oddity is Portia de Rossi, who looks like a different person.

How Do You Feel About Cleveland?

Happy birthday to Cleveland Duncan, one of the original Penguins, one of the first--and best--of the doo-wop groups.  He died  a couple years ago, but he knew his music was still being played.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Warren Submission

Submitted for your approval: at the National Journal they list Elizabeth Warren's eleven commandments of progressivism:

1. "We believe that Wall Street needs stronger rules and tougher enforcement, and we're willing to fight for it."

We certainly need regulation, but we've already got a mountain's worth.  It's just never enough for some people.   Of course, the bigger companies tend to love it--makes it tougher for the smaller guys to compete.  And every bit of regulation allows for people who know how to navigate the system a chance to make money without necessarily doing any hard work or anything of worth to society.

2. "We believe in science, and that means that we have a responsibility to protect this Earth."

Vague, yet manages to be a non sequitur.

3. "We believe that the Internet shouldn't be rigged to benefit big corporations, and that means real net neutrality."

I wish she'd said it shouldn't be rigged for anyone, but based on the other commandments, she seems to think the government's entire job is to do nothing but rig the system in her preferred direction.

4. "We believe that no one should work full-time and still live in poverty, and that means raising the minimum wage."*

Sure, raising the minimum wage will mean the high rates of unemployment among young people getting their first stepping stone into the world of work will grow even higher, especially in the inner cities, but that's a small price to pay for a principle.  It'll mean that poorer people will have more trouble buying things they enjoy, but that's a small price to pay for principle. It'll mean businesses barely hanging on--and there are a lot of those--will have it tougher, but that's a small price to pay for principle.

And what a principle.  This means if I work for a year on a screenplay, I get paid for it.  If I spend 90 hours a week building a business for ten years that ultimately fails, the government should pay me a ton of money. Heck, if I dig a hole four hours a day and fill it four hours a day, I get fifteen buck an hour.  Sign me up.

5.  "We believe that fast-food workers deserve a livable wage, and that means that when they take to the picket line, we are proud to fight alongside them."

These commandments are getting pretty specific.

6.  "We believe that students are entitled to get an education without being crushed by debt."

I agree.  We need to force professors to teach for very little and not allow them to retire.  But at least they'll have something to do.  The administrators we'll just have to fire.

7.  "We believe that after a lifetime of work, people are entitled to retire with dignity, and that means protecting Social Security, Medicare, and pensions."

And if that break us, we'll just print more money.  We'll also pass a law saying if you're tied to a rock and tossed in the ocean you're not allowed to drown.

8.  "We believe—I can't believe I have to say this in 2014—we believe in equal pay for equal work."

She doesn't need to say it. It's the law, and anyone can sue for such illegal discrimination.  Why do I get the feeling she's talking about something else?

9.  "We believe that equal means equal, and that's true in marriage, it's true in the workplace, it's true in all of America."

Not entirely sure if I get this. So inside a marriage the man and woman are equal?  How can the government enforce that? (I know, she'll find a way.)

Or is she talking about same-sex marriage?  Would she include marriage to more than one person?  I support that so I'm happy to finally agree with Warren.

And at work am I equal to my boss? I already felt that, but I didn't realize government needed to get involved.

10.  "We believe that immigration has made this country strong and vibrant, and that means reform."

So vague as to be meaningless.

11.   "And we believe that corporations are not people, that women have a right to their bodies. We will overturn Hobby Lobby and we will fight for it. We will fight for it!"

And I thought #5 was specific. Who would have guessed a tenet of progressivism deals with overturning a case from last month?

But she makes a good point.  Women have a right to their own bodies, which means companies have to pay for their birth control.  Is this the same logic that requires men to pay for their drinks?

Hey, I think we've found our next President.

Bonus tenet:  And the main tenet of conservatives' philosophy, according to Warren? "I got mine. The rest of you are on your own."

As opposed to her philosophy: I got mine and I got yours.

*I assume she's not including her unpaid interns.

What The Effinger?

It's the centennial of composer Cecil Effinger.  If you're gonna celebrate him at all, now is the time.

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