Friday, May 31, 2013

No Surprise

Papa Haydn's dead and gone, but his memory lingers on.

When his mood was one of bliss, he wrote jolly tunes like this:

East Bound And Down

Last week I saw a trailer for The East, a film opening today in selected theatres.  So far the reviews haven't been bad.

I know nothing about the film except what's in this trailer.  Well, I also know how films work.  In real life, corporations make products they sell to us, generally improving our lives. And terrorists plot to hurt or kill people, and are among the worst criminals in the world.  But not in movieland.

There is simply no way a big corporation can be the good guy here.  My guess is it will be discovered the corporation (or corporations) are, one way or another, killing people, or at least hurting them significantly.  Furthermore, they will know what they are doing and try to cover it up.

As far as the terrorists, these will be the well-meaning and idealistic type, if perhaps overzealous--maybe somewhere along the path they lost their way.

The most likely plot has the cops, or better, the corporation, trying to infiltrate the group and--a la Avatar (which itself was following a time-tested plot)--the infiltrator, gung-ho at first, will go native.

Other guesses:

In the second half of the film, one of the terrorists we've gotten to know will die.

There'll be a twist near the end. The head terrorists used to work for the corporation, or is related to the CEO, or, even better, is still working for it. Perhaps the whole thing was started by a corporation to get other corporations.

By the end, it will be understood the corporation needs to be brought to justice.

It's almost worth going to the film to find out if they wring any new variations from a stupid, tired concept.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Please Please Please

The rumors may be true! It's possible that Dan Harmon will return for the next (likely final, likely short) fifth season of Community. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Harmon, the show's creator who left last season, is talking to Sony Pictures Television to return "in some capacity."

That may be a problem right there. He used to run the show. He drove his staff, his stars and the network crazy with his fevered working methods. Allegedly, he'd take completed scripts, tear them up and start again.

But it's that sort of insanity the show needs.  Community is a special show, one that takes the sitcom format into places few if any have explored.  Without Harmon, season four, though it may have looked like Community on the surface, was missing something. He may be the only person who can return it to its former glory.

Still, I think that would mean he'd have to be given the reins again.  Even if Sony is seriously talking to him, that may be the one thing they won't do.

Swing Swing Swing

Happy birthday, Benny Goodman, everyone's favorite clarinettist bandleader.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Love Of Lee's Life

Director Steven Soderbergh says he's retiring from film. If so, it's too bad his last project was Behind The Candelabra, currenty showing on HBO.  Starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, it's the story of Liberace's love affair with Scott Thorson.

The two met in the 1970s when Liberace was in his late 50s and Thorson still a teen.  The early days of the relationship, when Liberace seduces Thorson and brings him into his household, is the best part of the story (just as the early days are often the best part of a relationship).  They go on to establish a true rapport and seem to be in love, before it all falls apart with Thorson's drug use and Liberace's fooling around.  Thorson would later sue Liberace, but the two would reconcile in Liberace's final days when he was dying of an AIDS-related illness.

So it's your basic boy meet boy, boy gets boy, boy loses boy story.  The flamboyance and kitsch of Liberace and his surroundings, as well as Douglas's performance, add to the fun, but by the second hour the story gets to be a drag.  Damon does a good job as well, and Rob Lowe is memorable as the plastic surgeon who tries to make Liberace look younger and Thorson look more like Liberace.

Marvin Hamlisch, in what must have been one of his last assignments, adapts Liberace's work faithfully, which was a mix of technical talent and just awful music.  Liberace was a successful act for decades, but really, who enjoyed this stuff?

PS  Debbie Reynolds is unrecognizable as Liberace's grumpy mom.  At one point she says "It is what is it." I don't believe people were saying that in 1980.

Danny's Ditties

Guess who turns 60 today?  Danny Elfman.  He was the founder of Oingo Boingo, a decent band, but who would have thought he'd go from that to become one of the top soundtrack composers ever.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Livingston, I Assume

Happy birthday, Jay Livingston, the tuneful half of the songwritings duo Livingston and Evans.  Do you know his songs? Well who do you think wrote this:

Hanging Around

The Hangover was a film that came out of nowhere to become one of the biggest comedies of all time.  Deservedly. It was hilarious and also managed to be sweet no matter how wild or raunchy the proceedings got.  Than came the sequel, which was also a gigantic worldwide hit but, as a beat-by-beat remake, and with a much nastier tone, squandered away most of the good will of the first.

So now we have the third film in the series.  With much less good will, and a horrible product, its grosses are way down. But that still doesn't explain A.A. Dowd's weird review at the A.V. Club.  Here's how it starts:

Setting aside the rampant sexism, broad racial caricatures, and unfunny Mike Tyson cameos, the most irksome thing about the Hangover films may be the gimmick that drives them. What could be less exciting and less cinematic than three hapless dudes spending an entire movie being told about the mischief they got into the night before? (No surprise that the photo montages during the end credits, which deliver a few glimpses of genuine naughtiness, earn the biggest laughs.)

If you're offended by the (alleged) sexism, caricatures and Mike Tyson performance of the first film, should you be anywhere near a review of The Hangover? You're constitutionally unable to enjoy it even if it's good.

But Dowd is a worse critic than that.  Dowd apparently is a master plotter who figures a film of guys getting drugged, followed by a couple hours of debauchery, would be hilarious.  Can't Dowd understand the brilliance of the first movie's plot?  It's not just another raunch-com, it's a comedy with a whodunnit propelling the plot forward.  We're in the same place as the Wolfpack as they've got one day to unravel what happened last night and figure out where their friend is, all while they keep getting deeper and deeper in trouble.

And the photos at the end are the icing on the cake.  The film has already worked--gotten plenty of laughs (just as big as the photos get)--and now we get this bonus.  And it's not the audience saying "oh boy, some naughtiness, that's what makes us laugh"--it's finally finding out what we missed, knowing what we do about the characters and their plight, that makes it work.

Here's how Dowd ends the piece:

[Zach Galifianakis's] shtick still works, even as seeing the character win over a lady—any lady—is about as believable as [director Todd] Phillips’ claims that this will be the last Hangover movie.

Considering how poorly the third film is doing, I wouldn't be surprised if it's the last in the series, no matter what Todd Phillips wants or doesn't want.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Born Benjamin

Hey ya, it's Andre 3000's birthday.


Matt Weiner used to work on The Sopranos, the show that would have vague, cryptic log lines to avoid giving away plot.  And now that he's created Mad Men, he's raised this to an art form.

Case in point, last night's episode, "The Better Half."  A fair amount of things happened in this hour.  To name a few--spoilers, of course: the newly-merged agency is still having power struggles; Peggy stabs boyfriend Abe in the gut and they break up; Pete considers looking elsewhere for work; an actress on Megan's soap makes a pass at her; Don sleeps with Betty.  If that last one isn't a headline I don't know what is.

So how was the episode described (presumably by the controlling Weiner)?  "Roger is plagued by a recurring dream; Joan goes to the beach." It's almost comically inept.  Not only does it not tell you about the big plot developments, it tells you practically nothing about the things it's allegedly talking about.  And it's not even correct.  If Roger had a dream, recurring or otherwise, I must have missed it.  And Joan does not go to the beach.  There's a short scene with about ten minutes left where Joan is planning to go to the beach.  We never see her there and it's of no consequence if she did go.

I must say I like this. I'm already watching the show, I don't need a come-on.  I'd rather know nothing about what's coming--I even avoid the "previously on" since that hints at what will be played up in the episode.

My ideal log line would be something like "If you're already a fan of the show, more of the same; if you don't watch it, check it out and you might like it."

Sunday, May 26, 2013


Can you believe it?  Everyone's favorite new age sorceress, Stevie Nicks, turns 65 today.  She's had a major solo career but is best known for her work with Fleetwood Mac during its most popular years.  There's no question as a singer-songwriter she added something to their music that put them over the top.

Contrary To Mary

At the AV Club Todd VanDerWerff has a good discussion of the Valerie Harper sitcom Rhoda, but there are a few statements I take issue with.  The show lasted four and a half seasons but was on its way down in popularity by the third.  VanDerWerff notes this is because it broke up central couple Rhoda and Joe, which displeased the audience.  True, but it was probably in trouble anyway.

Rhoda was a spinoff of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and to differentiate itself the producers decided to give Rhoda a successful relationship which soon led to marriage.  This was, ratings-wise, the high point of the series, and while it remained successful for its first two years, it really had nowhere to go dramatically or comedically at this point.  Domestic bliss isn't funny, so the two had to have some problems, and with poor casting choice David Groh as Joe slowing down the fun, breaking them up was probably the right thing to do.

But I'm more troubled my VanDerWerff's claims about The Mary Tyler Moore Show:

Rhoda was also explicitly Jewish, something that drove both the character and stories about her from time to time. The comedies of the MTM Productions studio that produced Mary Tyler Moore were rarely as political as those produced by Norman Lear (of All In The Family), but Rhoda allowed for an occasional window into important issues, like the struggle against anti-Semitism.

Rhoda's Jewishness helped define her character (and to this day many believe Valerie Harper is Jewish), but it rarely played a part in the show beyond a few gags here and there. Yes, the episode "Some Of My Best Friends Are Named Rhoda" does deal explicitly with anti-Semitism, but it was an experiment with an "issue" show that MTM wisely never tried again. It plays oddly and is one of the series' weaker half hours.

I'm more troubled by VanDerWerff calling such episodes a "window into important issues." Your relationship with your friends, your family, your co-workers--these are important issues, and every episode of Mary Tyler Moore deals with such things.  Meanwhile, a Norman Lear show where people are fighting about Watergate or the ERA or Vietnam seems far less important. (Even then it did, but certainly now).

Rhoda was developed by David Davis and Lorenzo Music [...] and they made two key choices to differentiate Rhoda from the other “single girl in the city” comedy that had given birth to it. The first choice was to play up the series’ social-issues storytelling just a bit more. [....I]n one early episode, a boyfriend of Rhoda’s suggests she should move in with him, something that would have been unthinkable for Mary Richards. All of this is grounded in the gentle humanism of the MTM house style, but it’s bolder than anything that had happened on Mary or on The Bob Newhart Show.

I don't think so. Mary, as mild as she was, and as sweet as the tone of the show was, was still a woman with a healthy sexual appetite.  She dated many guys and slept with some.  As the show made clear, she was on the pill.  They even considered giving her a regular boyfriend, Joe (Ted Bessell), but that didn't work out dramatically so they went back to the date-of-the-week format.

For that matter, the plots on Mary prefigured some of where Rhoda was going. Before Harper even got a series central characer Lou Grant had marital problems, as first shown on the Emmy-winning episode "The Lou And Edie Story."  He ultimately got divorced, which didn't happen on TV in those days.  But it did help pave the way for Rhoda.

For that matter, Bob Newhart would sometimes get into social issues, like the burgeoning women's movement, via his intertaction with patients, but we can discuss that show some other time.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

I Give You My Word

For a long time now I've been thinking of posting on words I can't stand the sound of, but what put me off was writing the piece would mean I'd have to write those words.  But now there's a piece in Slate on word aversion, so I guess I don't have to.

There are certain words that just give people the creeps.  The disgust is not necessarily based on the meaning of the word--though that plays into it--but the sound itself.  Surprisingly, one of the least-liked words is moist. I can see certain unpleasant associations, but I've got no problem with it.

Other words that get to people include ointment, vomit, phlegm, ooze, mucus, puke, scab and pus.  Okay, I can see those.  But what about slacks, crevice or panties?  The mere association with private parts seems to be enough to send some into a frenzy.

Worse, some people gag on luggage, meal, pugilist, squab and hardscrabble.  I guess they've got personal associations, but those words seem, if a bit on the harsh side, mostly harmless.

So what are the words I can't deal with?  I'm not going to tell you, or they'll just start showing up every day in the comments.


I was recently at a grocery store with prepared foods (which is pretty much all of them these days). Some woman was ordering a special deal meal--six bucks for barbecued tofu strips with two side dishes.

The guy behind the counter was putting the strips on her plate when one fell on top of the teriyaki salmon dish.  He picked it up and continued what he was doing, but the woman said she didn't want that any more so he took the strip and threw it away.

Fine, you're a vegetarian, but you won't even eat something that touched what was once an animal (and fish at that)?  Would you eat that tofu if a human, like your date (he ordered meat, by the way) touched it?

I admit I wouldn't want my salmon to touch any tofu, but if it happens, it happens.  But I doubt there was even a molecule of salmon on her tofu--maybe some teriyaki sauce, but that's about it.  You can go too far with these things.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Don't They Know It's The End Of The World or Apocalypse Now

For the big summer movies, you need big drama.  At least Hollywood seems to think so.  And what could be bigger than the end of human life on our planet?

We've already had Tom Cruise in Oblivion, where most of humanity has already been wiped out--it hasn't done that well, but it's probably got the best title.  Soon we'll have Will and Jaden Smith in M. Night Shyamalan's After Earth (which sounds too much like afterbirth).  Then there's Brad Pitt trying to save us in the zombie film World War Z.  There's Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim, where giant monsters arise from the sea.  Amd there's Elysium, with Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, featuring the classic story where the rich float above the planet while the ruined Earth is for the poor.

But the end of the Earth isn't just for drama any more. We've got two apocalyptically-themed comedies to look forward to: This Is The End, featuring stars James Franco, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen and others playing themselves as the world ends around them. and The World's End, the latest Simon Pegg/Nick Frost comedy where old friends reunite for a pub crawl amidst annihilation.

I haven't seen any of these films except the first (which I thought was a little low on tension), but there's something worth remembering. It isn't the size (of the threat) that counts, it's what you do with it.

Bobby Bubbi

It's that time of year again, Bob Dylan's birthday.  America's troubadour, he's in his 70s and still out there performing.  (There are so many songs I could choose, though I'm limited by how few Dylan originals are one YouTube.)

Thursday, May 23, 2013


A happy birthday to chess grandmaster Anatoly Karpov.  Actually, I was going to salute an even better player, Garry Kasparov, but I forgot his birthday last month.  So here's Kasparov beating Karpov in 1990, and explaining the kind of thinking a grandmaster does.

It's All Right

Big news yesterday--Lois Lerner, the IRS official who's bad at mathinvoked the Fifth Amendment while appearing before Congress. (Some claim she did it incorrectly by making a statement first--you can't testify on your behalf and then invoke the right against self-incrimination before cross-examination. I have no idea if there's any merit to this argument.)

Some have claimed that this suggests she's guilty of something.  Others have responded you shouldn't infer anything from her refusal to talk.  It is true that you can't make any inferences about guilt when a defendant is silent, but that's just a rule to use in a trial, not outside it.  I suppose there are a lot of reasons to invoke the Fifth Amendment, including just playing it safe, but it's hard to ignore someone refusing to testify, and I think most people make inferences based on that decision.  (Perhaps the Supreme Court ruling on inferences should be overturned, but that's another issue.)

The Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination originates centuries ago, and was created to avoid the "trilemma." Let's say you're a guilty criminal defendant in England in the 1600s (and the crime can simply be that you're a member of a religion unpopular with the state). Without a right to remain silent, you didn't have any good choices:  1)  You can admit your guilt and be punished, probably killed. 2) You can deny the truth under oath and condemn your soul.  3)  You can say nothing and be tortured until you talk.  That's why the right--adopted by the Founders in the Bill Of Rights--was created.  But if Lois Lerner wants to invoke it, she shouldn't expect the public to think that means nothing.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Last Ha

Among the arthouse crowd Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig's Frances Ha is doing well, having grossed $134,000 last weekend in four theatres.  It'll be interesting to see how it does when it goes wide (or at least wider), since I don't think the episodic tale of a young woman trying to get her life together, shot in black and white, is a conventional crowdpleaser--at least not for the mainstream audience.

The numbers look good, but the film actually averaged a bit less per theatre than Baumbach's last (which also featured Gerwig), Greenberg.  Yet that film only ended up with a domestic gross of a bit over $4 million (and considerably less foreign)--perhaps not bad for an art film, but not exactly a breakout, especially considering it was a comedy starring Ben Stiller.

Baumbach's film before that, Margot At The Wedding, starring Nicole Kidman, didn't quite make $2 million.  His biggest film, The Squid And The Whale, made over $7 million. Baumbach gets to keep making movies, but he's not quite in Wes Anderson's league, whose last film, Moonrise Kingdom made over $45 million, while a disappointment like The Darjeeling Limited made almost $12 million and did considerably better overseas.

So will Frances Ha top GreenbergThe Squid And The Whale? Will it be Baumbach's first to break $10 million.  To be continued.

A Special Day

Happy birthday, Jerry Dammers, founder and chief songwriter for The Specials. They never hit it big in America, but were huge in the UK for a few years.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Did You Know...

Happy birthday, Maria Taylor.  She may not be that well known, but she's got a nice sound.

The Other Side

Let's say goodbye to Ray Manzarek, whose organ sound--including the bass parts--defined the Doors as much as Jim Morrison's voice.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Officially Over

The Office went out with an hour-and-fifteen-minute finale befitting a show that's been a mainstay of the NBC lineup for the last nine years. Finales are tough to pull off, especially for sitcoms.  Half-hour comedies deal with the little things in life, and generally--even when there's an arc--each week starts as if you hit the refresh button, but you want big, decisive things to happen in a finale.  Also, sitcoms may be sentimental, but they're mostly about laughs, whereas it's hard not to overdo the emotions at the end.

In fact, they did overdo it.  More "touching" moments than they needed.  But there were still enough decent gags, and enough earned emotion, for it to work, if not quite wipe out the memory of the last two weak seasons.

The finale started a year after the last episode, so we got to see how all the characters ended up.  Dwight and Angela get married--the main action of the show.  Andy became a national laughing stock due to an embarrassing TV audition going viral, but landed on his feet with a job at Cornell admissions and a memorable commencement address. (It was sort of hard to buy this happy ending, but then, Ricky Gervais gave his own Office character a fake happy ending, so it's a tradition.) Erin reunited with her parents.  Kevin, who got fired by Dwight and now owns a bar, reconciles with his old boss.  Stanley is in happy retirement.  Darryl is doing well at Athleap (originally Athlead). Oscar is running for office.  And so on.

Then there's Jim and Pam.  If the show had gone off the air two years ago, it would have been about Michael as much as anyone, but now he's a bit player as Dwight's best man, and the whole show (and documentary) turns out to be about Jim and Pam's relationship.  Last seen, Jim had given up his dream of working at Athleap to hold on to Pam, but we knew that couldn't last--Pam couldn't be seen as holding him back, so in the end she sells the house and Jim will get to join Darryl.

Happily, it didn't end happily for everyone.  Ryan and Kelly, the two most self-centered characters, return long enough to run off with each other, abandoning a handsome, successful husband on one side and a baby boy (likely to be illegally smuggled into Poland by Nellie) on the other. Sweet, harmless (yet annoying) Toby is an unemployed, failed novelist living with six roommates in New York.  And Creed (it's finally admitted he was a member of The Grass Roots) fails to disguise himself properly and is going to jail.

So that's it. It's like the last day of school.  It's over, and we won't get to see these characters we used to see regularly.  Except on reruns.


Happy birthday, Susan Cowsill.  The Cowsills were a family who became a popular musical act in the 60s. They were the inspiration for the The Partridge Family.

The act was mom Barbara and six of her kids, all boys except the youngest, Susan. (Sadly, the mom and three of the kids are now dead, including Barry, who got stuck in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and drowned.) In their heyday, they had a handful of catchy hits.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Books I Never Finished Reading

I just checked out Chris Elliott's The Guy Under The Sheets, his "unauthorized autobiography," but bailed halfway through. Not that it's worthless, but it just wasn't what I wanted.

I was hoping for something approaching the story of his life.  It could have been a fairly straight account, it could have been filled top to bottom with humorous stories.  Instead we get a highly fictionalized tale of Elliott's life, so fictionalized it might as well be a novel. For instance, instead of his father being Bob Elliott, of "Bob and Ray" fame, Chris claims it was Sam Elliott--and his mother Bette Davis.

The story follows in this vein, featuring only the vaguest outine of his career--from Letterman to Get A Life to Cabin Boy and so on--with almost all facts and quotes made up.  It's quite a stunt, in a way, to keep up for over 200 pages,  and the jokes aren't bad, but panning for the occasional nugget of real life wasn't worth it.

Joey Joey Joey

Happy birthday, Jeffry Hyman, aka Joey Ramone. If he were still alive, he'd be in his 60s today, showing other punks how to grow old.  As it was, he was perhaps the most distinctive voice in the movement.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

May The Circle Be Unbroken

I came home yesterday and there was a message on my phone.  It was an automated call--no matter how many times I sign up for the "no call" list they still get through.  But this one was unusual.

It was a guy who had a story to tell--a long story, as the whole call took four minutes.  Apparently, years ago he had a personal religious experience, and he wants everyone to know. (So much for keeping it personal.) What was the story?  You know.  The kind you can hear all the time on TV or the internet.

More important, he asked me if I wanted to be saved.  (Before that he asked me if I wanted to be removed from his list--just press 8--though he noted he was not legally required to do this.  Am I supposed to give him points for this?)

In case you're wondering how, he made it clear it's not done by joining a church or a religion, or doing good deeds and living a moral life.  No, I would have to be born again, which I could do by joining him in prayer.

After the prayer, he asked if I wanted to be added to his prayer circle--just press 1.  Hey, he found me without my help, can't be pray for me without me joining him?  (And why does he pray anyway? I thought actions couldn't save you.)

Go, Joe, Go

Happy birthday to Big Joe Turner, one of the great blues shouters.  Before rock and roll, we had guys like Joe showing the way.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Plunked Out

I was listening to "Plink Plank Plunk," a charming pizzicato novelty composed by Leroy Anderson.

The piece has some built-in dissonance.  Then I saw Lawrence Welk did a version and I had to hear how he dealt with these off-notes.

Sure enough he cut them out--or "fixed" them.  Guess he thought they were too harsh. Can't give those old people heart attacks.

Oscar, Oscar, Oscar

One of the more fascinating periods in Oscar Wilde's short life was his year-long lecture tour of America in 1882 when he was 27. So it's nice to have an entire book devoted to that time--Declaring His Genius by Roy Morris, Jr.  Wilde had done little to merit attention at this point--he'd published a small and decidely minor book of verse and written an unproduced and not very good historical play.  But he had become a celebrity.

He moved to London as a young man and before long was a local character. As the story goes, while walking down the street he heard someone exclaim "there goes that bloody fool Oscar Wilde" to which he noted "It is extraordinary how soon one gets known in London." He became the face of the burgeoning aesthetic movement (not that he founded it or was its leader), and as such was regularly parodied in the press.  His greatest notoriety came came from Gilbert and Sullivan's highly popular Patience, with its character the poet Reginald Bunthorne, who "walked down Picadilly with a poppy or a lily in his medieval hand."

With Patience touring the colonies, why not send the real Bunthorne?  So Wilde was booked on a tour that would ultimately take him to 140 cities, including almost every major metropolis in the U.S. and Canada, and quite a few of the smaller towns.

He had an hour-long lecture on the British artistic renaissance and another on the home beautiful.  Instead of the wit of Gilbert and Sullivan, or even of later Wilde, he apparently gave a fairly straightforward talk.  He had a sing-songy voice and read his speech (at first, anyway).  In fact, he often got bad reviews and many audiences were bored.  But, if nothing else, the curiosity factor made the tour an overall success.

Even if the lecture wasn't always riveting, he didn't necessarily disappoint.  He often appeared in his flamboyant costume--a cloth hat with flowing locks underneath, a fur-lined green overcoat, a gaudy tie, knee breeches and silk stocking.  His reputation preceded him (as did performances of Patience) and at Harvard a bunch of undergraduates loudly entered fiften minutes after the scheduled start of the lecture and conspicuously sat in the front rows, dressed as Wilde and carrying lilies (or was it sunflowers?). This and other types of mockery often attended him in later talks.

His visits to each town excited great interest in the press, who interviewed him at every stop.  Some of his lines became famous. The most famous, echoed in the title of the book--Wilde telling a custom official he had nothing to declare but his genius--probably never happened, but Wilde was more than happy to let people think it did.  He also stated about his voyage that he'd found the Atlantic disappointing--so someone wrote a letter to a paper saying he found Wilde disappointing, signed, the Atlantic Ocean..  He also said Niagara Falls was one of the earliest disappoinments of American married life.  In fact, his sharp tongue often got him into trouble.  In every town he'd be given a tour, and while generally gracious, was free with his opinions.  In Chicago he didn't like the Water Tower, which made the town fathers unhappy--it had only just been built after the great fire and is still a symbol of the city. (I agree with Oscar here.  It doesn't really fit in and never has.)

He seemed most impressed with the West.  There was the vastness, which made America seem like its own world.  And there was the openness of the people, compared to the East, which was like an imitation Europe.  And though he was an aesthete, he showed in Colorado that he could drink miners under the table.

Along the way, he met quite a few celebrities, many more established than he--fellow poets Whitman and Longfellow, not to mention Henry James and Jefferson Davis.  Unfortunately, he missed Mark Twain, who was in the South when Wilde was in the North and in the North when Wilde was in the South.  (They probably passed each other on the Mississippi, but there wasn't so much as a wave.)

The tour was remunerative, and, for all the caricatures of Wilde in the press, helped establish him.  But really at this point he had little to say.  He might have tried to explain what the aesthetic life was, but neither his views nor his overall philosophy was very deep (and probably never became so).  Really it amounted to little more than an affected if well-spoken young man making pronouncements on beauty, both artifical and natural, that few were going to take seriously.  But it was a useful training ground for the work he'd soon be doing.

Wilde was generally fond of America and lectured on his impressions when he returned to Britain.  It was a detour in the life of a man searching for his milieu.  It provided what he wanted--notoriety, though he'd soon get more of that than he could handle.

Morris's book is short, but even then padded, with long asides on characters Wilde meets, and Morris's 21st century opinions on 19th century politics.  Still, it's nice to have a big land opened up before us, just as it was for Wilde.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

I Don't Care If You Don't Get It

From a piece on Benedict Cumberbatch (the best name in show biz since Stirling Silliphant), who's in Star Trek Into Darkness, which opens today.

In the film there’s a debate among Starfleet personnel over how best to extract an enemy in a distant part of the galaxy — and whether that enemy should be subjected to due process.

The British actor says: “It’s no spoiler I think to say that there’s a huge backbone in this film that’s a comment on recent U.S. interventionist overseas policy from the Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld era.”

I see. So they finally decided to do Paul Kinsey's script.

Jonathan, What's Happenin'?

Happy birthday, Jonathan Richman. He's never been huge, but after all these years, he keeps chugging along.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Trini Trills

Happy birthday, Trini Lopez.  He did the sort of fun pop/rock in the 60s that doesn't really exist any more.

Three More Thrones

Amazingly, the third season of Game Of Thrones is 70% over.  Just like each episode, the ten shows are over before you know it.

If the show has a flaw, it's that so many separate characters are in so many places the story only moves forward by inches each hour.  And so for most of the season everyone is maneuvering around.  But it's not so bad. The smart dialogue and fascinating characters often come out best when they're just maneuvering.

After the latest, "The Bear And The Maiden Fair," where are we?

Well, Sansa and Tyrion seemed resigned to their upcoming nuptials.  We'll see if they have to go through with it. (I haven't read the books, so no spoilers.) They've become two of the most sympathetic characters, even though they couldn't be more different. He's short and squat, but very clever.  She's tall and slender, but hopelessly naive. (Naive enough that some viewers are sick of her, actually). If anyone is really unhappy about their marriage, it's Shae, but what did she expect?  Tyrion loves her, but won't run away from being a Lannister, it's all he's got.

Other action at King's Landing--Joffrey is schooled by Tywin and out in the water Gendry learns from Melisandre how important he is.

Meanwhile, Jon Snow travels south with the Wildlings.  Ygritte is certainly very cute, but the way she mocks him every step of the way is getting a bit tiresome.  Speaking of tiresome, we've now had at least three weeks straight of Theon being tortured.  They're even starting to cut off parts oh him he'll miss.  Either free him or kill him. Then there's Bran, still having visions. He's been having visions since season one--also time for a payoff.

Then there's Robb, the conqueror, bogged down in the rain on his way to Walder Frey. I'm not sure how his strategy is working out, but Talisa's pregnant--that's got to change things a bit.

More troubling, Arya, who's turning into a very dark character, runs away from her fairly nice captors, Beric and Thoros, who were about to sell her back to her family, and into the arms of Clegane (I think).  Not sure what the Hound will do, or whom he's loyal to, but he knows he's got something and won't be letting go if he can help it.

The most fascinating stuff is at Harrenhal and out East.  First, we've got the new odd couple, Jaime and Brienne, who've both seen better days.  Roose is ransoming the Kingslayer to the Lannister clan back in King's Landing.  He leaves Brienne to the tender mercies of Locke, and no sooner is he gone than the Maid of Tarth is in a pit with a wooden sword and an angry bear (hence the title).  Jaime uses his leverage to rush back and save her, putting himself in danger.  So they're back together.  Not sure what will happen, but they've gone from mutual contempt to a deep connection.

Finally, we've got Daenerys (whose list of titles keeps growing) and her gang outside the walls of Yunkai.  She's advised to leave it alone, she doesn't need to take it.  But she can't stand the idea of 200,000 slaves and offers her terms of peace--let them go and I'll let you live.  Pretty nervy. She's offered gold and ships, but refuses, and they rebuff her right back.  Is she going to attack now, freeing all the slaves between here and the Narrow Sea?  No matter how her plan goes, it's great to see the Mother Of Dragons feeling her oats.  Her development has maybe been the most interesting in the series, from timid sister and frightened wife to dragon owner and powerful leader.  And considering she spent most of the first two seasons in impotent fury, it's fun to see her finally get to release it. I don't know who (if anyone) wins in the end, but Dany's got my vote.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

DB's From DB

Happy birthday, David Byrne. He was the leader of the Talking Heads. (He's done a lot of stuff since those days, though people don't care as much.)

It's Better To Have Lost

This week's Hollywood Reporter cover story features screenwriter and Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof.  His film career is hot now, but it turns out the he was ready to quit in the first season of Lost--he was already feeling depressed and didn't think he could manage it.

Happily (for viewers) he stuck around. But then there's the highly controversial finale:

"I love the Lost ending. I stand by it, but there are a lot of people out there who hate it. The conventional thinking is that it's universally hated, and that's not necessarily true. The loudest people are the haters. I cannot live in a world where I pretend not to hear those voices. When someone says something that really hurts me, I have to retweet it to let it go. If I were a healthier person, I possibly wouldn't be on Twitter at all, but I can hear them whispering at me."

Lindelof is right that it's not universally hated.  I'd guess as many as a third of Lost fans really like it, while a majority were disappointed or worse.

I'm with the majority, as readers of this blog know. I post regularly here, but if I had the time I'd rewrite every script from the final season, get some voice actors and animators, and put up an alternate timeline on YouTube where Lost ends differently.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Come On

After all the cancelations, NBC has announced its new fall schedule.  Since Community only has a 13-episode order, it looks like it'll be a replacement show. So that means the only show on the entire schedule that I plan to watch at present is Parks And Recreation.

And when are they playing it? One would think in the old Office slot, holding down Thursday nights. But no, it's in the old Community slot, starting off Thursdays at 8 pm.

Great, so it's up against the biggest sitcom on TV, The Big Bang TheoryP&R doens't have a huge rating to begin with, so it'll get slaughtered. 

But that's how it goes.  NBS hasn't owned Thursday since Friends left.  But I was at least hoping for a more open schedule.  For the past couple years I had to choose which to watch, BBT or Community. (I chose Community and caught Bang later.) Now I'll have to do the same with Parks.

Yeah, I know, no one watches TV when it's broadcast these days anyway. But I still prefer it that way.  If you get an episode or two behind you just don't want to bother.

Today The Music Lives

Happy birthday, Ritchie Valens.  He died when we was only 17, in the plane crash that also took Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper.  Not too many teenagers leave a lot behind, but Ritchie did.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Stand Up Guy

I just watched the Bob Saget comedy special That's What I'm Talking About.  It's a good title, since he makes up so much of what he says as he goes along, and so much of it is generic.

I like Bob Saget, but don't consider him much of a stand-up. He's fast on his feet, and has an amazingly smooth delivery, but doesn't have much content. He's also filthy, which may be a fun contrast to his clean character from Full House, but doesn't particularly make me laugh.

Much of the hour has him messing with the audience, mixing in his rap with a few pre-set jokes.  He also has a bit about his dad telling him a dirty jokes, and a story about the guy with Tourette Syndrome who uses his name as a swear word, but none of the material really goes anywhere. For his big finish he picks up a guitar and plays a bunch of dirty, not particularly funny songs.

The weird thing is the hour goes down easily.  Saget is a very charming guy and his transitions make the whole thing seem like one long, pre-planned monologue. But I can't say I laughed much.

The Other Stevie W.

Happy birthday, Steve Winwood.  Believe it or not, little Stevie Winwood turns 65 today.

He was an amazing singer, sounding like an old blues man in his teens, working with the Spencer Davis Group.  Also was an excellent musician and fine songwriter.

He really opened up when he founded Traffic in the late 60s with Jim Capaldi, Dave Mason and Chris Wood.  After a short stint with Eric Clapton in the supergroup Blind Faith he went back to Traffic.  The shifted its lineup several times and broke up in the mid-70s.  Winwood went on to a highly successful solo career which, as far as I know, continues to this day.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Eric The B

Happy birthday, Eric Burdon.  He was the Animal's lead singer, and they were the roughest group to come over in the British Invasion. Their big hit, the song that broke them, was their 1964 take on an old folk song, a take so powerful it convinced Dylan to go electric:

They had a bunch of tough rock and roll hits, but got a bit more psychedelic as the decade wore on.


Slaughter at NBC, as Whitney, 1600 Penn, Up All Night, Guys With Kids and Deception were put out of their misery (while they re-upped on Parks And Recreation). And then Go On (Matthew Perry should go back to Mr. Sunshine) and Rock Center.  New shows have been ordered and a few other shows are on the bubble, in particular Community.  On any other network it'd be canceled but NBC has so many flops that such a show, with a small but intense fan base, has a shot.

A year ago, that would be great news.  But now that the 13-episode fourth season has ended with the so-so "Advanced Introduction To Finality," a renewal would be nice, but not thrilling.  The finale, in fact, pointed to what was wrong with the show.  It had the tropes of Community, without the heart or wit.

The plot was a return to the great--their greatest, I'd say--episode "Remedial Chaos Theory," with the characters from the darkest timeline returning to destroy the prime timeline. (Turns out it was all a dream--a good thing, since the idea that the darkest timeline exists outside anyone's mind (particularly Abed's) is ridiculous.) It also pointed to other plots, including a healthy helping of paintball, very important to Community. For that matter, the title is a nod to the third season's finale (and perhaps the show's true finale) "Introduction To Finality."

The season started as a question mark.  Creator Dan Harmon had been forced out and a number of the other writers left.  Additionally, Chevy Chase quit and even in the episodes he appeared was kept at arm's length.  So often, what was left seemed to be fan fiction--sometimes good fan fiction, but generally plots and jokes that reminded us of previous episodes and captured the surface of things but missed the inner workings that made the show so special.

So I hope the show continues. I still like the characters and some of the episodes this season weren't too bad. But I doubt it'll ever be the same Community.

PS  Just before we went to press, NBC renewed Community.  So hold off on ordering those box sets just yet.

Congratulations to the cast.  Now that Jeff has graduated and has become a lawyer again (for public service?--boring) it's not clear what happens to the study group, but TV paychecks can maybe solve that.

More important is how to solve the dip in quality.  Perhaps the new producers learned something and can avoid the mistakes of the last year.

It's not clear how many episodes this will mean.  If it's just 13, it'll be like season 4B.  In any case, it'll have enough episodes to go into conventional syndication, where others can rediscover it.

PPS  More good news. There's a rumor that, just maybe, Dan Harmon will return to the show--for what will be a 13-episode season.  The show could survive the loss of Chase (especially if they can somehow replace him with another great character--some have suggest bringing in Fred Willard, as in Abed's dream), but losing Harmon seemed to put out the pilot light.

Actually, I think this is nonsense.  I believe NBC still doesn't want the unpredictable Harmon back, and he might not be ready to return.  Still, if he did come back, it'd be a chance, if nothing else, to let this show go out right.

Friday, May 10, 2013


Happy birthday, Graham Gouldman.  He was a singer and songwriter for 10cc.

Before that band got together, Gouldman was a top-notch songwriter, penning hits such as "For Your Love," "Heart Full Of Soul," "Bus Stop," and "Listen People" to name a few.

In 1969, the people who'd become 10cc recorded under the name of the Ohio Express which was actually a brand name used by their producers (the band was from England).

By 1972 they became 10cc (a name which has the same meaning as the Lovin' Spoonful) and had a fair amount of success in the 70s.  Regarding songwriting, they sort of split in two, with members Godley and Creme creating the artier stuff, while Gouldman, often with other member Eric Stewart, brought in the hits.

Not So Great?

Baz Luhrman's The Great Gatsby opens today.  I'm not sure if I'm up to it.  In fact, The Great Gatsby strikes me as essentially unfilmable. The plot isn't much--what makes the book a classic is its elegant sentences and polished tone, and its sense of longing, reinvention, uncertainty and sadness.  It's something a film probably can't capture.  Certainly none has so far, and I'm not sure if a Baz bash will do it.  Having the film out, however, makes we want to read the book again.

I haven't looked at it in years.  And now here's a piece by Kathryn Schulz in Vulture saying I shouldn't. 

It is the only book I have read so often despite failing—in the face of real effort and sincere ­intentions—to derive almost any pleasure at all from the experience

[....] I find Gatsby aesthetically overrated, psychologically vacant, and morally complacent

[....] None of its characters are likable. None of them are even dislikable, though nearly all of them are despicable.

I don't disagree entirely with everything she says, but I think she mostly misses the point.  Yes, the characters are empty, and the relationship between Gatsby and Daisy isn't fleshed out, but this is a book about hopes that crash into emptiness.  Fitzgerald is able to capture a mood, and have great set pieces, without exploring the inner lives of his characters--if anything, this might upset the careful balance of tone. He decided to set things at a remove, reflecting on American life of the time (and still today) by letting quiet voyeur Nick Carraway narrate.

Schulz complains that Fitzgerald is preaching too obviously, and worse, has the wrong lesson--he's more troubled by the pleasures of the rich than the immorality.  He's also hypocritical, personally liking the things he's condemning.

That’s an interesting tension, common to most of us and great fodder for fiction. But rather than explore it, Gatsby enacts it. As readers, we revel in the glamorous dissipation of the rich, and then we revel in the cheap satisfaction of seeing them fall. At no point are we made to feel uncomfortable about either pleasure, let alone their conjunction.

"Enact it" rather than "explore it"?  I'm not sure if I see the difference--it sounds like Schulz wants the book to be more obvious, yet complains it's too obvious at the same time.  In any case, I think the book is more equivocal.  Fitzgerald isn't setting out to make us seethe, or sympathize, but watch and understand (as well as we can). 

Maybe the game was up when Schulz admitted she read the novel a bunch of times but derived no pleasure.  Why bother, then?  She so busy trying to be engaged that she misses the amazing journey of a small group of souls in a strange yet familiar world who flicker alive for a short period before they go in directions they can't avoid.

Now I definitely want to read it again. It can't be that good, can it?

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Trail Mix

I guess congratulations are in order to Mark Sanford for defeating Stephen Colbert's sister in a special congressional election in South Carolina this week. But I have to wonder if this teaches Republicans the wrong lesson.

In recent years, the GOP has a record of nominating some true losers--people who were not properly vetted and showed it by saying stupid things, or people who were too radical to begin with, or had personal flaws that seriously hurt their chances.  Both sides have this dynamic, of course--the party faithful, who often decide the nominee, want someone more extreme than plays well with the electorate at large--but Republicans have been abusing this privilege of late.  It's arguable they'd have control of the Senate if they'd have been more careful.

I didn't follow the South Carolina race closely, but everyone knew about Sanford, who had a notorious affair a few years ago when he was governor.  If he wants to follow his soul mate, that's his business, but you'd think then he might stay out of politics--or at least his party wouldn't let him back in.  So I have to ask--was he really the best candidate available for this race?  There were sixteen Republicans running for the slot, and his party said "this is the guy"?

So now he's won.  Should Republicans whoop it up and say this proves such considerations don't matter? Obviously not, since this is a heavily Republican district, and Sanford almost lost it. He had to nationalize the race--make it against Nancy Pelosi--to remind the voters his party registration was more important than his personal problems. Even then, his margin of victory in the district was only half that of Mitt Romney's in the 2012 presidential race.

Some thought this race might be a harbinger for 2014.  And if Republican take it as a lesson that they can still play fast and loose with their nominees, it very well might be.

Soul, Man

Happy birthday, Dave Prater, of Sam and Dave, probably the best soul duo of all.  He and Sam had a falling out, but when they sang together it was magic. Dave died in a 1988 car accident, only 50, but his what he did in his performing life will go on.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Tool Time

I caught the new ABC sitcom Family Tools. Probably because it was in-between The Middle and Modern Family.  The set-up, based on a British series, is pretty simple.  Tony Shea, who runs a fix-it business, suffers a heart attack. His adult son, Jack, whom he's never gotten along with--partly because his son is a screw-up who can't stick to things--comes back home to take over the business.

Meanwhile, there's also Jack's sister, the nagging Terry, and her weird teenage son, Mason, living in the house.  At work, there's hip, urban Darren, who doesn't get along with Jack, either.  However, Darren's sister, who also works at the hardware store, flirts with Jack.

It's not a particularly impressive pilot.  The show's is set at a highly unrealistic level--it starts with Jack on the floor after his heart attack but sis won't let the EMT guy in until he changes his ways--but doesn't have the correspondingly wild (and funny) jokes that would make it work.  And the idea of kids moving back in with their parents is a bit of a cliche.  (The other new sitcom on ABC after Modern Family is How To Move Back With Your Parents (For The Rest Of Your Life).)

Still, the cast, including J. K. Simmons, Leah Remini and Kyle Bornheimer, are game.  I suppose I'll give it another chance (if ABC does), but it better improve fast.

PS.  The only business client we see in the pilot is played by Amazon Eve. They didn't especially play up her size.  Not to put down her histrionic talents, but that's why you hire "Amazon" Eve, isn't it?

Chris Head

Happy birthday to Chris Frantz, the luckiest member of Talking Heads, since he got to marry fellow bandmate Tina Weymouth.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

The Master

Happy birthday, Johnny Maestro.  He wasn't originally named Maestro, of course.  It was Johnny Mastrangelo, which wouldn't fly in 1950s show biz.

He was lead singer of the Crests, an interracial doo wop group.

They had one huge hit:

By the late 60s he was lead singer for another band, the Brooklyn Bridge, and in 1969, they had one big hit.

No more big hits for Johnny, but he had a nice career for decades as an oldies act.

Immediate Gratification

I've been sensing a Mad Men backlash.  It's as if people are starting to wonder how long can we watch people adrift.  If that's the case, the latest episode, "For Immediate Release," should have allayed those fears.  It featured purposeful characters pursuing specific goals, and enough plot for three episodes.  I don't know if I'd call it a classic episode, but it least it was eventful.  Some critics think the show should be about angst, and I say fine, as long as stuff is actually happening while they fret.

Right from the start big things are are afoot at the small agency of SCDP.  Bert, Pete and Joan are talking (secretly) to a banker. So much is going on this week that even Bert is at the top of his game. If the numbers work out, they're going public, which would make all the partners rich (or richer)--Joan will become a millionaire at a time when that meant something.  She's almost overcome.

Pete also has a plot of his own.  He's going to announce the deal at tomorrow morning's meeting (Don doesn't want to dine with him that night) so of course he goes to celebrate at his favorite midtown bordello.  While there, Bob Benson, who gets creepier each episode, tries to pay for Pete's time. Much more important, Pete runs into his father-in-law, who got SCDP the huge Vick's account.

Meanwhile, Roger is doing some business of his own.  Not just an affair with an old friend who works at the airport, but drumming up business.  She's a contact (Roger has contacts just like the schemers in Game Of Thrones) who calls him when a flight is delayed and a big GM executive is waiting.  Roger drives over to the airport and hangs out in the lounge with the guy, ingratiating himself and even taking the flight to Detroit to win a pitch for the new Chevy.

At Don's place, his mother-in-law is staying over.  She gives advice to her autograph-signing daughter--no husband wants to be just an escort, so dress sexy and get him hot.  So they all go to a dinner with the Jaguar representative, the boorish Herb and his boring wife Peaches (Peaches and Herb).  It's really Roger's meeting, but he's in Detroit.  Don loathes Herb--with good reason--and the feeling is probably mutual.  Herb demands Don get approval on his work from a kid who writes fliers fro Her. Don (without regard for SCDP, as is his style), dumps the Jaguar account, feels good about it and then has sex with his wife.

And that's just at the main agency.  Over at Peggy's place, Ted finds out partner Frank is dying.  This is gonna cause fiscal trouble, and it's not good that they dumped their own car compnay to get a shot a Chevy.  Meanwhile, Ted finds himself fascinated with Peggy and kisses her. It doesn't go any further, but Peggy is fascinated right back. In fact, she's bought a place on the seamy West Side and her guy Abe is looking less and less desirable. She even fantasizes about Ted when she kisses Abe. (In a great sight gag, the imaginary Ted is reading a book entitled "Something by Ralph Waldo Emerson.")

So everything is in play.

Next day, Vick's drops its account, so the agency has lost two of their biggest moneymakers.  That'll scuttle the offering right there.  Pete tries to calm down his father-in-law, but all the man can see is his disgusting bug of a son-in-law defiling his princess daughter.  Threats of mutually assured destruction mean nothing to him.  Pete goes home and tells Trudy the truth.  She says he didn't have to say that, and she's right--but that's Pete.

So when Don comes into the office Pete (after falling down the stairs) shouts at him for ruining everything with his ego. Joan takes it inside the conference room, but fevers are high.  Roger comes in with the good news about Chevy, but it's not enough.  Pete (mad at himself as well) still dresses down Don.  Worse, and this was the big scene in the show for me, Joan has her say.

I've always seen Joan as the distaff Don.  She's amazingly good at what she does (the banker was impressed with her impeccabe records) and also is the sexiest one around.  Don mentored Peggy (who would have had sex with him early on, but he said no) and now she's moved on.  But Don and Joan have always had a mutual respect.  They don't have too many scenes together but whenever they do you feel it's two people who care about each other and understand each other (which is why they've never slept together, I guess).  In fact, Don was the only one who told Joan--too late--not to sleep with Herb.  So when Joan won't be mollified, and lashes out at Don, saying he never thinks of anyone else, it's powerful.  She made the ultimate sacrifice for Jaguar and Don just tosses it away, also likely tossing away her million dollars.

Anyway, Don forges ahead with his creative team--and it's nice to have Don care about something again--and he and Roger are soon in Detroit.  But there are two other big companies and nemesis Ted's company as well. Ted sees Don in a bar and realizes the small companies are there for show (just like Heinz)--the big companies will get it, since GM will demand a big company.  After trading pitches (I'm sure some viewers thought Ted would be stealing Don's idea--which, by the way, struck me as better than Ted's, but what do I know?), Don has the solution.  GM wants a big company, we'll give them one.

Next thing you know, Peggy gets a call in her office.  Ted is back and wants to see her.  She checks her makeup and goes over.  And who's there but Don, announcing they've got the Chevy account and, by the way, SCDP and CGC are merging. In the past, it was nice when Don came hat in hand to make sure Peggy came along with him. Now, however, she thought she'd outgrown him.  She left SCDP even though she could have named her price. But she's been gobbled back up. And she has to write the press release to announce it.

So that's the big news.  Some wondered if Peggy was leaving the show last season, and it did seem like her satellite office was spreading the plot too thing (what with Megan's acting career and Betty's political wife act).  Now she'll be back in the thick of things, though, knowing Mad Men, one wonders if this will work out well for anyone.

Monday, May 06, 2013


It's the birthday of Sigmund Freud, one of the most influential thinkers of our time.  He may not always have been correct. but concepts he developed still define the debate.


It's Bob Seger's birthday.  Growing up around Detroit, I heard him a lot on the radio.  Maybe so much I didn't appreciate how good he was.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

The Forgotten Keaton

Want to feel old?  Tina Yothers turns 40 today.

Arthur, Arthur

Playwright Arthur Laurents, who died two years ago today in 2011, was known for being sharp-tongued.  He fell out with many friends in his long life, and was still calling it as he saw it up to the end.  Take his final book, Mainly On Directing, published in 2009.  More than once he condemns a production of a show he wrote but didn't direct--the 1980 revival of West Side Story, the 2003 revival of Gypsy, the movie version of West Side Story. The people behind them didn't have musicals "in their bones."

What does this mean?  That's what most of the book tries to explain when he's not busy criticizing others. He tells his story mostly from the point of view of a director, who has to work with writers, producers and actors, but at all times must serve the show.

Laurents goes into detail how he directed several musicals: more than one production of Gypsy, especially the 2008 version starring Patti LuPone (he seems to care more about Gypsy than any other show); the first musical he directed, I Can Get It For You Wholesale (1962), which featured the unknowns Elliott Gould and Barbra Streisand; his doomed collaboration with Stephen Sondheim, Anyone Can Whistle (1964); the first mainstream gay musical, La Cage Aux Folles (1983); and his last show, in 2009, a new, tougher take on West Side Story, where the Sharks speak Spanish.

Laurents is interested in the musical play, not the musical comedy.  He doesn't hate musical comedy, but it's too often seeking the show-stopper, which may please the audience, but stops the story dead.  In the musical play, the story comes first, and anything that doesn't move it forward has to be fixed or removed (and in revivals you can't always remove things, even if you wrote the book).  But it's still a musical--you go as deep into the characters as in a straight play, but the characters have to be able to reveal themselves through song and dance.

The most interesting chapter in the book is his discussion of the Patti LuPone Gypsy, where he breaks it down almost scene by scene, song by song.  Even though he wrote the book of the show, he sees that many numbers and scenes that played well in 1959 can obstruct the piece today.  So how to make it work (without rewriting)?  He allows the kids doing the Vaudeville numbers to make mistakes, so it's not just about cutesy songs, but about how Rose has to take what she can get. "If Momma Was Married" isn't just about two kids who barely talk to each other suddenly singing a charm song, it's also about June and Louise forging a bond. "Together, Wherever We Go" isn't just the three leads doing a turn, it's Rose convincing them to get back in the game. "You Gotta Get A Gimmick" isn't just about three strippers doing their act for the audience, it's about how they represent a sad tradition and how Louise reacts to them.  And so on. He also turned some things around. Not wanting Rose to always be angry, he decided her big first song, "Some People," would be about expressing her joy at what she sees before her. And the climax of the show, after "Rose's Turn," would be about Gypsy Rose Lee dealing with her mom, even as her mom breaks down and then recovers.

Laurents often writes as if he's got the answers, and anyone who disagrees with him--even someone like Jerome Robbins, who definitely has the musical in his bones--doesn't get it.  You certainly don't have to agree, but I'd rather hear it straight from Laurents than so many equivocating authors afraid to state their opinion.

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