The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Due next: Rent

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Phantom of the Opera

December 22, 2004,  Warners   141 minutes
Shortly after Nine opened on Bway in 1982, Geoffrey Holder recruited the show's authors, Arthur Kopit & Maury Yeston, to begin work on a musical of Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera--for which he had sole American rights, ahead of the work going into public domain. In Britain, however, it was already in public domain when soon thereafter Andrew Lloyd Webber made a showy pronouncement of his latest project. Fearing a pointless duel of Phantom's, Kopit & Yeston moved on to other pursuits until L-W's version revealed itself. It was, of course, the commercial smash of the century. No exaggeration. Still running uninterrupted in London since 1986 and on Bway since 1988, the show has been minting money from global box offices for as long as most people on the planet have been alive. And yet, Kopit & Yeston saw that L-W's play was sufficiently different from their approach and resumed their version which debuted in Houston in 1991, and has had over a thousand regional productions since, but hasn't dared, and likely never will, play Bway. (It might be an intersting Encores! selection, however.)

Even Cats, whose logo was "now & forever," eventually closed (tho it's needlessly back), but Phantom of the Opera is now entrenched in the majestic Majestic (first home of hits: Carousel, South Pacific, Fanny, The Music Man, Camelot, The Wiz) in what seems to be a permanent attraction. It might as well be Madame  Tussaud's  come  to  life.
Will it ever close? Frankly, the phenomena is beyond me. Was there an unfulfilled hunger for operetta dormant for decades? Why am I so clueless to its rabid devotional appeal? Don't others find the story more silly than romantic? A disfigured, bitter, vengeful man residing in the bowels of the Paris Opera, woos a young singer hypnotized by his mystery only to lose her by his boorish behavior; while her young lover & childhood pal plays hero. A story old as time, or at least  since the silent movies--known from a Lon Chaney classic in 1925. The French have a thing for these tales --"Beauty & the Beast"  by  any  other  name: Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Cocteau's Le Belle et le Bete; Leroux's Phantom. The Alienation of the Freak; a metaphor for the outsider in all of us. The need to be seen for our Inner Beauty. Lloyd-Webber took to it like Puccini to Japan. If he needed any further inspiration, his then wife, Sarah Brightman was the template for Christine, a role he gifted her for both London & NY premieres. The scale of the work called for the return of Harold Prince (absent from L-W World since Evita.) They immediately put together a team to address what was most important about the show: the production. No doubt much of the musical's appeal is its opulence. Aside from being set within a grand opera house giving license to Aida-sized numbers with elephant statues; there's a grand chandelier that must fall and  a  dry-ice  journey  into  the  bowels of the  Phantom's 
lair. Maria Bjornson was a British designer who worked mostly in opera and ballet and the Royal Shakespeare Co. At a time when musicals were leaning on the unit set or minimal scenery, Prince & L-W let Bjornson go wild, elevating the show's budget to over $14 million--a record at that time. But money well spent, for it generated word-of-mouth that seems to never end. I'll admit my memories of the show (seen but once on stage) are entirely visual--the lavish opera sets, the subterranean cave; and yet nothing topped the very opening: the parting of curtain after velvet curtain until at last revealing the stage. Everything that followed was inarguably smart, professional and state-of-the-art but couldn't spark much affection from this diehard musical lover.

As always, the critical question is whether the score delivers; and for me this one is postage due. It isn't fair to entirely blame Lloyd Webber for the genre he's mining--but neither operetta nor grand opera are idioms that illicit enthusiasm from this quarter, so that's strike one. Oddly, the title song is the single exception, being a sort of rock-based horror-movie kind of thingy that hasn't much comparison. It also gives the show a shot of hipness, used much (if rather misleadingly) in TV ads. The show's top ballad, "Music of the Night" having entered the L-W repertory as companion to Cats' "Memory"--tho nowhere near as pleasing to my ears--is a thin steal from Loewe's Brigadoon--"Come to Me, Bend to Me;" a snooze of a song to begin with. And in Michael Crawford's premiere recording it isn't exactly music to my ears. I've written earlier  about  my  bafflement  to  his  appeal,  but  he  was
older now and matured into a real West End matinee idol. And here he was the star of the world's most successful musical. Like Rex Harrison rising to immortality with My Fair Lady; only. . . not. He was the first, yes, but hardly the definitive Phantom and tho Crawford had once a brief, promising film career, there was no outcry to cement his performance on film, tho he was expected to when Warner's first purchased film rights in 1989, giving Sir Andrew complete artistic control. L-W quickly hired Joel Schumacher (a costume designer turned writer/director, who began in movie musicals writing scripts for Sparkle and The Wiz) and all was ready to roll when Sir Andrew's divorce from Sarah Brightman led to complications, and put the film into a long dormant stage that lasted a dozen years.

But there was really no need to rush it onto screen. Aside from the endless NY run, there were the countless tours and international companies, including a 4 year sit-down in LA, followed by a six-year fixture at the Curran in San Francisco--a city of few long runs. The show feels like a tenant you just can't get to move. As time passed, Michael Crawford became less necessary and other casting rumors circulated. For a long while John Travolta was attached, which didn't seem so wrong. Then Antonio Banderas--who might be better. Hugh Jackman was also in the mix, but in the end they chose Gerald Butler, who aside from being relatively unknown had no vocal experience whatsover. Hadn't they learned since Paint Your Wagon days? Katie Holmes and Anne Hathaway were serious contenders for Christine, which eventually went to Emmy Rossum; thus ensuring no box office value in leading players. As Raoul, Patrick Wilson was on point, still a rising star. Judy Kaye's Tony-winning   opera  diva,   Carlotta  went  to  a  younger, 
hammier Minnie Driver. Ciaran Hinds and Simon Callow were the impressarios, and Miranda Richardson, the shadowy Madame Giry. Schumacher returned to shoot the entire film at Pinewood in England. The film was royally unveiled in London on Dec 10, 2004 (my 52nd birthday) and in major US venues on Dec 22. However thanks to my Writers Guild emeritus, I was able to go to an industry screening at the intimate Dolby viewing rooms in SOMA, on December 1st. Coming at the property with less anticipation than usual, I was impressed enuf to return for a second look in January at the Metreon. I hadn't seen it since.

The movie begins as stunningly as it does on stage, only enhanced with digital technology. From a faded sepia postcard of Paris, 1919 we zoom into the frame as it comes alive in dusty black & white: the Opera Populaire from the street to the stage, an auction in progress, the fabled house now destined for demolition. (Shades of Follies) As a final lot comes to bid, a chandelier "in pieces" is hoisted upward and in the process wipes the theater from ruin to pristine glory and b&w to color, all to Lloyd-Webber's most stirring orchestration of the title tune. The opening continues with a flurry of backstage activity that consumes an opera house of this scale. It's all breathlessly thrilling and concludes at a rehearsal in progress with La Carlotta--the house diva. In short order we meet new company owners Firmin & Andre, their patron, the Vicomte, Raoul--a childhood sweetheart of chorine Christine Daae, who is pushed forth by company manager, Madame Giry, when Carlotta bolts in tantrum. It's all rather limp understudy drama; but wait--now it gets wiggy. Instead of basking in her debut glory, Christine retreats to a basement chapel to commune with her Angel of Music--a voice she's been hearing--which Mme. Giry claims has been teaching Christine. But how? Thru the ducts or pipes? It's a puzzlement. And tho Phantom is pleased with his pupil's debut, he flies into jealous rage at Christine's reunion with Raoul, and abducts her to his lair. 
One of the musical's signature moments is the gondola ride into the underground chamber. Schumacher & Co. are aware of this and inflate the journey to ridiculous length, including one passage down a hall with human arms holding candelabras (an image stolen from Cocteau), and another down a ramp that for no visible reason involves the needless assistance of a horse--all to the throb of the Vangelis-like title tune, which upon examination makes so little sense. Why, for instance would Christine sing, "Those who've seen your face/Draw back in fear"? How would she know?--those who've seen it are all dead. The man cave itself is so absurdly choked with candles (but where is all this smoke venting?) that you can easily expect a good half-days work just in getting them lit. But the extravagance is convincing in accepting Christine's hypnotic surrender, tho she has to endure, as do we, his lugubrious "Music of the Night." A novice vocalist, Gerard Butler took lessons--which leaves him sounding like a novice who's had a few lessons. (Tho in truth, neither Michael Crawford, nor anyone else I'd ever heard made this song sound any good.) But Butler is no better with any of the music, and not that compelling a presence, which pretty much nullifies his casting. Minnie Driver, on the other hand overdoes an annoying Italian accent, finding scant warmth underneath her bitchy shell.  Her  best  moment  is  in  "Prima Donna" 
being carried to stage in a sedan chaise. This sequence which begins in the Opera lobby as a heavily expositional song, "Notes," perks up the movie after the dark scenes of Christine's encounter with the Phantom--which should have been the more enticing. A major mistake was made in giving his facial disfigurement such a soft pass. Unlike previous film Phantoms, who looked truly scary, Butler looks no worse than your average burn victim. Nor do we see any look of horror in Christine's eyes when she dares to peek under his mask--now fully melted in empathy to this creature. Was this an editing oversight? Without Christine's repulsion, the Phantom's enraged reaction to her act seems all the more psychotic. By now it's clear that the central story is either silly or moribund but what really works is all the otherwise  arcana  surrounding the  Opera. 
The stage sets are lovely enuf, but even more stunning are the operahouse rooftop and a foggy graveyard. Along with solid performances by Patrick Wilson & Emmy Rossum these details make tolerable another two L-W ballads of no particular distinction: "All I Ask of You" and "Wishing You Were Here Again." There's far too many ballads in this score, and tho it's too facile to say they all sound alike (they don't) they do propound a feeling of sameness--a gateway to tedium. And damn if L-W can't dispense with his insistence on thru-sung musicals--burdening the show with yards of his painful recitative. (Not to put too fine a point on it: but Maury Yeston's version sounds positively lively--and no less dramatic--in comparison.)
"Masquerade" begins in fine form, dazzling in every way--a latter day "Ascot Gavotte" with Alexandra Byrne's costumes giving Cecil Beaton a run for his money. But the number dissembles after awhile, and ends rudely; the Phantom's entrance on the main staircase abruptly silencing the room. Does this make sense? First off he's masked as is everyone else present. It's not like his figure is well known; in fact few have ever seen him--so what's the panic?   Is  it  because  he's  dressed  in  red?  Like  the 
devil? As it happens, the opera he's come to demand they perform (so he's a writer!--But, as we shall soon see, he really wants to direct) is apparently set in the third circle of hell: something called Don Juan Triumphant--tho the movie drops the adverb from the title. It's a wholly different work than what we've seen so far--something dissonant and "modern" with no indication whether it's meant to be ahead of its time, or simply bad. A troupe of Martha Graham-like dancers pop up so unexpectedly I could only laugh. The Phantom drops in to play his own protagonist for the "Point of No Return" and from there it's swordfights and dungeon drama and the Kiss from Beauty to the Beast--the act of transformation, the great romantic climax. She's now free to go with Raoul and the Phantom can slip away into legend.  I know millions are moved by all this claptrap, but I'm afraid, like A Chorus Line's Morales, I felt nothing. Still, the movie has an epic sweep and elegance that recalls My Fair Lady, tho without the indelible performances or the unquestionable score. After Chicago, the Phantom's makers had every hope Hlwd's Academy would embrace them, but the film won only three nominations: cinematography and art direction were givens (so how did they miss costumes?) but nothing in the major categories. Lloyd-Webber (with Charles Hart) got notice for the obligatory end-credits new song, "Learn to Be Lonely"--an absurd bid for aggrandizement in a category long since bowdlerized by the lack of original songs in post '60s movies. It lost to a Spanish tune (no doubt lovely) from Motorcycle Diaries that no one's heard of since. Not that "Learn to Be Lonely" has entered the L-W canon. Without the imprimatur of Oscar, The Phantom of the Opera grossed $51,269,000 domestically--a soft showing for the "world's most popular" musical. The film did much better overseas, doubling that for a global total of $154,649,000. That's not peanuts, but compared to the new standard, Chicago, disappointing to Warners, and Really Useful (Lloyd-Webber's empire).

By the time of the film's release I was pretty much entrenched in my own grotto, a social phantom, writing--at a snail's pace--my own musical. Three years after my presentation to a gaggle of 42nd Street Moon players, I had managed to rewrite the first act and pen lyrics to ten songs. My composer apparently wasn't in much of a hurry, either. These were dark years, the looming Bush/Cheney cabal unleashing a MidEast hornet's nest; a still traumatized general public; a prevalent post-millenium depression. I soldiered on, but my long-held belief in my own protective angels was shattered when I suffered a head-on collision on Post St. moments after dropping Greg off at physical therapy. I never found out why this illegal Latino "borrowing" his bosses truck drove straight into me, but I was fortunate to suffer no worse than a broken wrist (from the airbag--of all things) and some long-range PTSD. But my contract with the universe was now forever broken. That it happened on the eleventh of June, on top of Greg's initial car accident (Dec 11) the Madrid bombings (July 11) and of course the grandaddy of them all: 9/11; branded the 11th as my day to beware. By 2004, my last known blood relative on the planet, Mother, was 83--and having always been older than her years, a very old 83. Yet determined to remain on her own in her 2-story tomb of a house; with daily reminders of where her husband shot himself. In widow's shock she declined to the point her mind couldn't make simple connections, basic logic, or reasoning. The sad truth was she had no good reason for being alive. And wanted nothing more than to die. Only for some bizarre reason (as we will later find out) she couldn't. She was about as negative, unpleasant and tiring a person as you can imagine being around. And now, suddenly on her own, she demanded a good deal more attention, meaning almost ceaseless weekend visits and nightly phone check-ins. I went back into therapy.

In May I returned to NY for the first time since 9/11. There was nothing of interest at ground zero--just a giant construction site; but Bway had changed. It was roaring back to life--not Golden Age/National Influence life but thrivingly cultishly popular as well as freshly creative (or shamelessly commercial)--and the newly renovated Times Square now swarmed with family-friendly crowds in this musical comedy (and drama) Disneyland. In truth what finally drew back to Manhattan was Encores! production of Bye Bye Birdie (which was crisply done, but undermined by low-wattage casting.) I came in via Boston, where I stayed with my dear old Laura (who by now I hardly ever saw anymore), but also to take in some unfamiliar sites to freshen these tired eyes; and Boston is a lovely town. I met Larry in NY and we stayed in a condo near Penn Station so uniformly white as to feel like a booby hatch. In short order we saw Caroline or Change (with my beloved Alice Playten!); Assassins, Jumpers, Here Lies Jenny, and Bombay Dreams. The Roundabout Studio 54 Assassins was best, but in truth none have lingered in fond memory. I saw a fair share of theater in California as well: Urinetown, Hairspray, Man of No Importance, the tryout of Wicked in SF; A rare revival of Duke Ellington's Beggar's Opera in Marin, Bat Boy in Mt. View; Elaine Stritch At Liberty, Grand Hotel, my friend, Lisa Loomer's latest at the Taper: Living Out--in LA; and the most enchanting surprise of all: the tryout of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the cozy Globe Theater in San Diego--the most fondly recalled of all those above.


The revived commercial interest in Musical Comedy led to two documentaries released in 2004: one on PBS in conjunction with a book by Michael Kantor & Laurence Maslon called Broadway: The American Musical--an entertaining affair that by time constraints jumped from one pillar to another, but with much unfamiliar historical footage. The other, Broadway: The Golden Age by Rick McKay was more visceral: living legends from the Golden Age (filmed like "witnesses" in Warren Beatty's Reds style) recalling stories familiar and un- of all aspects of the stage. (These weren't restricted to musicals). There weren't any movies I enjoyed more that year. I was still attending the cinema then but with waning frequency. For the most part movies were less & less interesting, and I mostly went to year-end screenings of those intended For My Consideration as Writers Guild emeritus. But there was really more interesting work happening in new platforms on cable television: Six Feet Under, Sex & the City, Absolutely Fabulous, The Sopranos, and two new exceptional (and underrated) series, Carnivale and Dead Like Me.  Fortunately HBO gave Mike Nichols the freedom 
to film Angels in America with the budget, the length and the all-star cast the play deserved. And with the introduction of Netflix DVD rentals, along with gigantic flat screen TVs dropping rapidly in price, going to the cinema was less & less necessary; drifting me further into reclusion. It seemed apt that my worse years would coincide with what then seemed to be the worst possible American administration. Most surprisingly I found pitiful solace in Elvis Presley movies--a genre I'd steadfastly ignored before. Now they appealed in their utter innocence, but even more for their Technicolor travelogues 
made back in my favorite decade, the '60s: Blue Hawaii, Fun in Acapulco, Viva Las Vegas. Celluloid valium to counteract all the disturbing political turmoil--altho this had become an unlikey subject of fascination as well, which resulted in my new, unexpected devotion to CNN & MSNBC. The 2004 election was more gripping than any fictional thriller, down to the climax with a downbeat--nay, dystopian--ending.

One thing was looking up--literally. After a decade living deep in San Francisco's forever-gentrifying, yet always noisy/filthy Mission District, I found a new apartment up the hill on Twin Peaks, looking down at my old 'hood, and the whole eastern part of the city. More than moving from Victorian to contemporary '70s digs, the psychological effect was incalcuble. Scaling down considerably in size, we purged a lot; but foolishly (aside from some help with the biggest furniture pieces) I moved every last bell, book & candle up the hill by myself in countless car trips--which is the last time I'll be doing that. A compact apartment, it met our needs in crucial ways: a garage with same level access (for Greg's now apparent long-term disability) two bedrooms at separate ends; modern not drafty. The main room provided an office niche for Greg, and my bedroom buried deep in the back, became my office & library as well, from which I type these words a dozen years later. In compensation for a single bath and small kitchen, there is a room-sized   deck   with  stunning  eastern   views,  which 
is more often than not uninviting as day progresses into night, and SF weather flaunts its famous fog and bone-chilling wind. Installation of a compact vinyl hot tub made outdoor evenings possible, and became my meditation studio. Radish & Shannon our two aging felines, used to roaming the back alleys of South Van Ness, took to the new sun-drenched digs like two elderly gentlemen retiring to Miami. A fresh start was needed by all. We had moved from the trenches up into the caves; we could look out on our world again (to live in SF without a view is nearly criminal) and gain some perspective. Right after our first Xmas, as Phantom of the Opera was just opening around the world, the horrific tsunami-to-end-all-tsunamis (my core horror) happened in South East Asia--washing away at least a quarter of a million souls. It's easier to be vigilant from atop a mountain.


Coming Next: Rent


Report CardPhantom of the Opera
Overall Film:  B
Bway Fidelity: A--  
Songs from Bway:  11
Songs Cut from Bway:  3
Worst Inclusion:  the endless recitative
New Songs:  1 (accessory: over end credits)
Standout Numbers:  "Notes"/"Prima Donna"
               "Masquerade"
Casting:  Uneven, lacking star charisma
Standout Cast: Patrick Wilson
Sorethumb Cast: Gerard Butler, Minnie Driver
Cast from Bway: None
Direction: Competent, occasionally brilliant
Choreography:  Minimal
Scenic Design:  Lavish, enchanting, detailed
Costumes:  Sumptuous, Best in Show
Titles:  Endless, dull end titles
Oscar noms: 3; Cinematography, Art
            Direction, Song ("Learn to Be Lonely")

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Chicago

December 10, 2002,  Miramax   113 minutes
During the five years I lived in NY, there was no Opening Night I was more keen to attend than the one to Chicago. First announced in the summer of '74, the show was delayed by Fosse's untimely heart attack, and not back on track until June of '75. But unlike other must-sees I nabbed tix to, there were no Opening Night duckets available at the box office, which only fueled my determination. I wrote to Gwen Verdon (in c/o the theater) to plead my case as her most passionate fan. She was in fact my favorite Bway star--a position unchanged after I received a sweet hand-written note back, excusing herself from any pull at the box office--but wishing me luck. On the Night-Of I arrived hours early to pounce on any possible cancellation. As was kismet, my diligence panned out and I scored an orchestra seat on the far right side, but only ten rows from the stage. From the very stage that 20 years earlier Verdon set afire as Lola in Damn Yankees, followed by her Anna Christie in New Girl in Town and Essie Whimple in Redhead--all of them earning her Tonys; all of them staged by Bob Fosse. Indeed the 46th St. Theater could as easily have been renamed the Verdon, or the Fosse instead of the Richard Rodgers (who aside from Do I Hear a Waltz had only one show ever play this house: a short-lived revival of On Your Toes in 1954). There is something special about Bway theaters, tho they grow everymore cramped and uncomfortable over the years. But they are truly temples of mirth and divinity; and within their hallowed walls lingers some kind of cosmic residue from the great shows and performers who imbued the space with their unique talents. By that token I feel a thrill whenever I enter the St. James, the Majestic, the Shubert or the Winter Garden. But my heart shall always belong first to the 46th St. where happy ghosts from Finian's Rainbow, Guys & Dolls, I Do! I Do! How to Succeed in Business, waft in the rafters. Aside
from Chicago, here's where I saw 1776 on a 4th of July, No No Nanette four times; Nine, twice, opening night of Raisin, the great late Tammy Grimes in Private Lives; Seussical; In the Heights and the first month of the revived-by-Encores! Chicago, before it moved to smaller houses. And now it houses, no--enshrines, Hamilton.

So there I was in my orchestra seat as the curtain rose, the horn wailed and Chita Rivera rose up thru the floor to start "All That Jazz"--surrounded by Fosse's most stylized, least dressed corps of dancers. The audience went wild--I was living the dream.  If Gwen Verdon was my favorite Bway star, Chita Rivera was a close second, and having a double-header for my first live exposure to both was beyond reasonable expectation. (I fell for them thru records, mind you--ladies known for their dancing!)   On top of that there 
was Jerry Orbach, who'd forever earned my affection from Promises, Promises, oozing charm in a sleazy role. The show was so top-loaded I had little need to care for either Barney Martin or Mary McCarty--in another late career peak, following her Stella Deems in Follies, leading the ensemble in "Who's That Woman?" And should there be a moment of boredom there was always one or another of the lithe and eroticized dancers, male or female, to catch the eye. And perhaps most importantly it was Kander & Ebb at the top of their form, with melodies so engaging I couldn't wait to get the OCR on my turntable.

This was also the summer A Chorus Line roared onto Bway from downtown, stealing most of the thunder (and a year later, the Tonys). And as much enthralled as I was with that show, too, I argued with my friends with unfounded certainty that ultimately Chicago would prove to have the more lasting score. The show was a soft hit (Gwen never had a musical flop) but it was far overshadowed by Michael Bennett's phenomenon, tho there was a publicity boost when Verdon had to exit for an injury, and was replaced for five weeks (just as Chorus Line was opening at the Shubert) by Liza Minnelli--starting a stampede for tickets. Verdon returned and stayed with the show until Ann Reinking took over for the final six months. A road company toured with obscure leads until Gwen & Chita stepped into it 7 months later during the obligatory Civic Light Opera weeks in LA & SF--where I saw the golden duo for a 4th and final time. Oh, yes, I had also seen it with Liza, who'd subbed on such short notice she was still a bit wobbly with the lines, but oh was she game--and yes she was an able Fosse dancer at the time. Despite all that, the show settled into semi-obscurity until 20 years later when Encores! staged a stripped-down version that so electrified its audience it was quickly transferred to Bway--where it's now run over 20 years--the longest running American musical in Bway history.

It was Gwen Verdon who first saw a musical in the 1942 Ginger Rogers movie, Roxie Hart; which in turn was a cleaned up, softened version of a play by Maurine Watkins--spun from her own reporting on two "Jazz-killer" trials in the Second City--a Bway hit in 1927 as Chicago. Watkins herself is quite worthy of fable; an Indiana girl gone Radcliffe, who impulsively decided to become a reporter and wound up interviewing a bounty of convicted murderers, including Leopold & Loeb. Just as abruptly she quit the trade, fearing she was enjoying it too much. While at Yale Drama School, she wrote Chicago and sold it to Sam Harris
to produce--all by the age of 26. Verdon wanted Fosse to make the show for her since the late '50s. But when it finally came together Gwen was hitting 50, and as she'd struggled thru the run of Sweet Charity with many weeks out due to illness or injury, she requested Velma (originally a supporting role) be expanded to an equal share of the bill, thus inviting Chita Rivera to divide the burden--the other Golden Age Star Dancer. At 42, Chita was no spring-chicken either, but she would astound us all by continuing to star in Bway musicals well into her 70s--and even continue dancing after a taxi accident left her nearly crippled in 1986. Astonishingly, this was only her second Tony nomination (after Bye Bye Birdie), tho she'd eventually earn a record 10 noms (shared by Julie Harris)  --her two wins still years ahead. Verdon was Tony nominated for every one of her six musicals, and won the first four. It would be hard to choose between ladies in Chicago, which in part was why it was easy to crown Donna McKechnie the winner for A Chorus Line the next June--tho hers was far less a starring role. But then Chicago lost all 11 of its Tony nominations to Chorus Line. The '96 revival won six, including those for Bebe Neuwirth (as Velma), Joel Grey (as Amos) and Ann Reinking (not for Roxie, but for retracing Fosse's steps, thru her own lens.)

Billed "a musical vaudeville," the show is as much a pastiche as Follies, but one in which the songs move the plot--some are the plot. Yet they play like specialties, as indeed they are, modeled on such 1920s headliners as Helen Morgan, Ted Lewis, Sophie Tucker, Eddie Cantor, Bert Williams; who over time are less & less familiar or even relevant to audiences. Nowadays do even 5% know the correlations to performers past, much less care? This was one obstacle to realizing a screen version, another was the belabored complaint that millennial audiences had problems with characters bursting into song. Bill Condon's screenplay circumvented these issues by having the numbers arise thru Roxie's delusional show-biz fantasies. This establishes a pattern but doesn't always conform. Would she really imagine a full-out Fosse ensemble like "Cell Block Tango"?--one without a historical reference point (unless it's Sweet Charity's "Big Spender"). No matter, the device works. But it isn't the stagey presentation of the songs that's changed, but the underlining narrative--done as vaudeville sketches onstage--depicts a contrasting grim reality on film. Musical numbers weave in & out thru the arrest, incarceration and trial of Roxie, but in depicting the harsh actuality beyond them--something entirely missing in the original musical--helps make the conceit work even better. Of course it doesn't hurt that the songs are good. Among the Best-of-Kander & Ebb-good. So from the start Hlwd was eyeing the property. Fosse was the natural first choice to direct but he preferred to move on to All That Jazz (a not so subtle snub to Chicago in its very title), which left the project somewhat unmoored. Still, rumored casting floated around for years: Liza Minnelli & Goldie Hawn; Cher & Bette Midler; Ellen Greene & Michelle Pfeiffer. But musicals were evermore scarce in Hlwd, and as the '90s rolled on Chicago was fading into the past. That is until City Center's Encores! brought it roaring back to life in '96--setting off an avalanche of international productions, national tours and a  sit-down  Vegas version. 
The original Fosse production was deemed too cynical by many--too cold to be enjoyable; a factor cited in its limited exposure. Aside from two years on Bway there was a national tour and a West End edition, but only one major international production in, of all places, Buenos Aires--and before even London. (Presumbaly Argentinos were more inclined to be cynical of society). Many cited the OJ Simpson trial as a turning point in American mores, which in turn gave new relevance to Chicago--as well as accrued theatrical value. And so a quarter century later at the instigation of Zadan & Meron, the Weinstein Bros. and Bway producer Marty Richards, the movie was finally a go. The screenplay was awarded to Bill Condon as a follow up to his Oscar-winning tinsel-town gargoyle, Gods & Monsters; and for director: Rob Marshall, whose film credits include Zadan & Meron's TV updates of Annie and the multi-racial Cinderella. Wise choices that trusted & preserved the show's inherent value, without trying to reinvent the film musical; in other words: without apology.

Casting at the turn-of-the-millennium was a whole new ballgame, and few of the choices were obvious. But was there anyone left that was obvious? Madonna, perhaps, for Velma--you'd think she'd have lobbied for it. Rene Zellweger was a fresh young thing come up thru Jerry Maguire, Nurse Betty and Bridget Jones' Diary--at the peak of her Hlwd ripeness, and Roxie Hart was a surprisingly good match for her ferocious innocence & sexy twinkle. With her weepy resting-face and period bob, Renee finds all the right buttons for Roxie, from killer to victim--with just the right amount of musical ability to put her songs over without showing any major talent. It's a tightrope she walks quite well. Catherine Zeta-Jones may check all the boxes for Velma, but I can't ever seem to get it up for her. Like many West End musical stars (Elaine Paige, Ruthie Henshall) Zeta-Jones lacks a certain fizz that makes a star a Star--something more cultivated if not demanded on the Great White Way. Well, at least that's been my opinion. She doesn't do anything wrong here, really (discounting her awful line readings of the Cicero story in "Cell Block Tango") but she just doesn't electrify in a role that Chita--and even Bebe Neuwirth did. So naturally she's the single cast member to win an Oscar. I've no objection to Richard Gere as Billy Flynn, tho he's at best an adequate song & dance man.  Queen Latifah  is  much  better,  tho  we must 
look blind to color, for surely no black woman ran a Cook County prison in the '20s. But she's fine in voice & figure channeling Pearl Bailey playing the Palace. (But I just flashed on what Cass Eliot might have once done with the part!) And in John C. Reilly a perfect Amos is captured, a dullard and doofus, but interesting enuf an actor to make us almost care. Christine Baranski who seems to pop up everywhere, takes on Mary Sunshine--a gossip columnist played on stage by a man in drag. Dominic West, not yet well known plays Roxie's victim,  Fred Casely;  Colm Feore,  a  prosecutor,  and Lucy 
Liu, an unlikely society murderess who steals everyone's thunder at the climax of Roxie's trial. Taye Diggs tickles the ivories as a sort of silent emcee, doing little more than looking dapper in nightclub blue light. And Chita Rivera shows up--in a holding cell--for literally five seconds in her most hardboiled look & manner.

Opening on Roxie's eyes (to plant the conceit from the start) the pic uses the jazzy Bway overture over shots establishing Velma's late arrival to her club gig, having just killed her husband & sister--with whom she shared an act--tho her subsequent "All That Jazz" perf betrays no sign of being a joint venture. She sings her guts out knowing the 
cops are afoot for her encore. Roxie is tied into this opening as well, having been brought here by Fred Casely, falsely promising her an audition--and establishing Roxie's dreams of vaudeville stardom. But where Fosse & Ebb's skeletal libretto had Roxie simply shoot Fred as part of the show's opening, Condon fills in the details: giving us the scene of betrayal that drives Roxie to murder--the following shock allowing "Funny Honey" to emerge as a torch song in her imagination--while the cops interrogate hapless husband, Amos. The illusion crumbles and she's off to jail where she imagines Matron Morton in the mold of Sophie Tucker before she even meets her. By now it's obvious the film is built on carefully crafted transitions between truth & illusion, placing greater emphasis on editing than usual. The aforementioned "Cell Block Tango" comes in pieces over clips of inmates sharing their murder stories; the number itself more Fosse than vaudeville, highlighted by the peerless theatrical lighting of Bway legends Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer--and filmed with a ferocity--and manipulation of film speed--that makes it fairly crackle on screen. This and the ventrioloquist-act, "We Both Reached For the Gun," are the numbers most heightened on screen--again in no small measure because of lighting.Whether intentional or not, there's no mistaking 
the On-top-of-the-World "Roxie" number as another nod to Monroe and those forever giving "Diamonds." It even has a bevy of mature backup boys--and when was the last time we saw that? It's a wholly fabulous number, and for once done not as a vaudeville specialty but as a soundstage-size Hlwd studio product. (A bit of a cheat for the '20s) Apparently "Class" was a cheat too far, for tho it was filmed--in two ways--it never felt right in the final cut --but you can judge for yourself, with its inevitable emergence as a bonus track. It's hard to think of quality musical scores that have their best songs at the end, but my favorite Chicago songs have always been the latter ones. "Razzle Dazzle" does what it stands for, and the circus motif is carried to Cirque de Soleil lengths--oddly drenched in a purple haze. Musically this would be my prime choice as well, were it not for "Nowadays" an irresistible confection of a song (that in Gwen & Chita's vocals delivered Bway greatness) which I had long imagined deserved the full Ziegfeldian stairway. But the film gets it right in a different way, starting with a sultry glam-croon with Roxie in shimmering black gown; then cut in mid-verse to a more tawdry audition--one that Roxie fails. Here Condon gives us one last scene, to tell us how Roxie teams up with Velma (adversaries on equal footing now);  something never  bothered  with in the stage show. 
Then"Nowadays" resumes in more legit form; the done-up duo engulfed in oversize furs, soon discarded revealing diamond-beaded dresses, with a light wall dropping from above. Against this charge of vibrating electricity they dance the "Hot Honey Rag" rendering all comparisons or memories of Verdon & Rivera meaningless, by the sheer cinematic Rahadlakum released. (And here, again not to nit-pick, but Zeta-Jones--who must be the only actress Renee could ever be alphabetically billed above--and is the more experienced stage performer; pales next to the loose swagger of Zellweger. Renee looks like she's having fun. Catherine looks like she's working.)

Twenty-seven years in the making, Chicago--the movie--opened Dec. 10th in NY & LA--my 50th birthday, as it were. But I was in SF and wouldn't see it until Dec 29th--two days after its national release. The film caught fire with the critics and public, and rode its year-end surprise to numerous citations, culminating in a hefty 13 Oscar nominations, including the Big One; Rob Marshall for directing and Bill Condon's script. Renee was put in the main actress category, and Catherine split into the supporting field, which also included Queen Latifah (as well as Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Kathy Bates). Richard Gere wasn't granted a nod, but John C. Reilly was. A half dozen technical categories yielded Oscars for Art Direction, Costumes, Film Editing and Sound. In a naked bid for gold, Kander & Ebb provided "I Move On" (supposedly a reject from the show) to play in the end credits. The Academy gave the Oscar instead to Eminem. There hadn't been a Bway musical movie in the Academy's top list since Cabaret--and no winning picture since Oliver! in 1968. It didn't seem like it would ever happen again. 2002 was a better than average year with some high profile competition including two epics: Martin Scorcese's Gangs of New York and Roman Polanski's masterpiece of the Warsaw ghetto, The Pianist. Others in the running were the second installment of the not-yet-Oscared Lord of the Rings trilogy (and by consensus the least worthy of the three); and a starry, literary prestige item from Michael Cunningham's book The Hours. Also rans that year included Adaptation, Frida, Catch Me If You Can, About Schmidt, Far From Heaven, and Almodovar's Talk to Her--which won original screenplay. The year before, Baz Luhrmann's psychadelic Moulin Rouge was the first musical to get a Best Pic nomination since All That Jazz. Both films played fast & loose with interpolated music, exaggerated style and fancy editing. But Moulin Rouge--tho hailed as the second coming of the musical--was more flash than substance, visually overpowering--but so shredded into  snippets of film the eye can never take in the uber-Rococo spectacle with any satisfaction. Fortunately, Chicago didn't pick up the habit, and tho it's certainly cut with more briskness than the old MGM model, it is artfully & carefully edited--earning Martin Walsh a well-deserved Oscar. Like Cabaret 30 years prior, Chicago took an early defined lead in collecting statues, but lost script & direction to The Pianist--a victory against odds for Roman Polanski. The ultimate prize was in question until the final opening of the envelope. Understandably, Hlwd was more in the mood for a musical than another reminder of the world's horrors. And here was, at last, a musical that appealed to the masses without apologizing for its Bway mantle. A musical worthy of Oscar. The movie grossed $170 million domestically, for a $306 global total (21st century numbers are impossible to correlate with those of decades past--when Hlwd listed "rentals" deducting all payoffs for a more realistic studio profit figure. $300 million comes to a lot less when you pay out the theater chains, the advertising and other sundry costs.) Still there's no disputing Chicago was a smash hit--the highest grossing movie musical ever--for the moment. The gates once again open, Hlwd took a look at Bway with fresh eyes.

Bway itself was reawakening; moving from a Bronze Age (after the usual 28-30 year span--yes, the Saturn return cycle) into a brighter, more Silver Age, if you will, where the Bway musical rose above the narrow margins of popularity it fell to post-Golden Age; to a somewhat unapologetic acceptance, even some degree of cool. In large measure this was due to bringing back the comedy in Musical Comedy--something that became scarce in the wake of Sondheim and the Brits--undoubtedly a factor in the shrinking audience. But Bway was bouncing back at the Turn of the Century--something, I confess I never expected to see in my lifetime. Times Square had been transformed from its trashy & dangerous nadir in the '70s. The once low-rise theater district had been engulfed in canyons of skyscrapers; the TKTS booth in Duffy Square evolved into a stadium for gawkers; the neon homeland giving way to massive hi-def TV screens; traffic-clogged streets reduced to massive pedestrian malls; one big showgoer's Disneyland. Only unlike previous eras, musicals were now 90% of all shows on Bway. Whether driven by politics or history the Zeitgeist demanded it. As the Golden Age once bloomed in the anxious soil of horrific war, the new Silver Age took root in the Bush/Cheney coup de etat, and its resulting catastrophes, beginning with 9/11, which defines the true beginning of the 21st Century. The shockwaves Americans endured for years to come, required the musical to return as a public balm.

I hadn't any six degrees connection to 9/11 (tho my longtime friend Tim Witter passed under the Twin Towers in a cab mere minutes before the first plane hit--on way to Newark Airport), but weren't we all walking around like Zombies for some time afterwards? Bad enuf we had to endure the incompetence of Bush and the malevolence of Cheney, as we started down that long hell-hole, now a series of personal unfortunate events came my way which made these years the worst of my life. Three months after 9/11, my partner Greg (who was managing an office at a wellness clinic) was broadsided by a woman running a red light; car totaled, waking up in the ER. Remarkably he seemed to be fine, but over time certain complications emerged, leading to a seizure, and then in hospital the main event: a fall by their negligence that rendered him paralyzed for the next half year. After getting nowhere with Kaiser, Greg returned home to a newly setup hospital room, and thru our genius medical intuitive, Rhonda, slowly regained intelligence in his lower body and began to stand and barely walk. But that's another story...and a long one it is. The impact on me, was no picnic either. At first there was a rotating staff of nurses in the daytime (allowing me to go to work) and Greg's friends--tho they soon virtually all disappeared. My evenings had me playing cook, nurse, companion and morale booster; until he's tucked in to slumberland. It was like suddenly having a child--an infant at that, if you factor in the of changing diapers. My one sweet spot was the one or two late hours I had to myself, a puff of magic herb, and an escape into a musical album, or a movie--nothing was more soothing than a '40s Fox musical with Betty Grable, Alice Faye or Carmen Miranda, with glistening Technicolor backlot settings: Rio, Miami, Cuba, Canadian Rockies--fairly new to me (no compilation like MGM's That's Entertainment ever clued later generations to these forgotten goodies.) As much needed bon bons of escapism, I can well understand the popularity of such pulp during the Great War.

For obvious reasons I can date the end of my social life--modest as it was--to early 2002. But what became evident as Greg healed--ever so slowly--was that I so treasured the few hours I had stolen to pursue my own explorations & creative works, that no matter how much I regained, 'twas never enuf. The first project to suffer was my musical, When Stars Collide for which I had embarked on revising as well as writing new lyrics to be set to music by Billy Philadelphia (who was likewise consumed by life and in no hurry). We managed to get six songs done the whole year--a couple of which were soon discarded. I hadn't time for my art/collage work either. I was blessed in one regard, however: my job was stable, unassuming and flexible to any and all of my needs. Yet approaching my 50th birthday I hadn't the morale or the wherewithal to plan for any grand gesture (as I had on my 40th, writing and performing my own monologue, The Nikita Khruschev Songbook). As it happened, my Father would've ruined any planned event, as he took deathly ill on the day itself, and was rushed to hospital, forcing me to deal with my distraught and near hysterical mother--in depressing San Jose. I suppose I could count as a birthday gift my father's apology--from his hospital bed--for being a lousy father.  I took this to be indication of how close the end must be, rather than any heartfelt rapprochement. Mother on the other hand was refusing to even considerate his demise, going so far as to contradict Father's Do Not Resuscitate dictum, telling the staff to keep him alive at all cost.  For this he suffered another invasive operation (colon cancer this time) returning home within a week. But by Xmas he was back in hospital with a new round of issues. He spent the holidays in an overcrowded nursing home, and I was making the hour's journey from SF with dreaded regularity, the start of my hatred of driving--not to mention the physical anxiety attacks. The only upside was that Greg was now autonomous enuf to afford my frequent absences. I soldiered on, but two nights before New Years, I managed  to  get  myself  to  the  Metreon  to see  Chicago
Despite outstanding advance word, it was a high bar indeed to measure up to Verdon, Rivera & Orbach and the fingerprints of Fosse, which made it all the more sweet that the film was so happily realized. I returned to corroborate my first impression the following Sunday. By this time Father was released home once more, and against all odds seemed to dodge the Grim Reaper for the umpteenth time, looking and feeling somewhat healthy once again--much to Mother's desperate relief. My own relief was measured for I knew it only put off the inevitable again. The truth was neither of them had any interest in being alive anymore--Father's age and maladies put his global wanderings finally to rest; and Mother was nothing if not incessantly frail, nervous, and miserable. Mired in their natural Russian pessimism, they nonetheless clung to life with genetic fortitude--annoying each other as only the most intimates can, locked in mutual co-dependence & resentment. For years Father had stated when the End Was Near he would graciously shoot her first & then himself. But in the end he was both selfish and a coward. He only shot himself. After a fortnight his renewed vigor was curdling again, and seeing the writing on the wall; facing a return to hospital, or worse, a nursing home--he shot himself in the head upstairs in his office, while Mother was downstairs washing dishes. But sparing her life was ultimately crueler and a good deal more painful for all concerned--especially Mother. The Old Man exhibited signs of dementia as well in the last few weeks; one key example being his sudden conviction that his mother, my Baba, was secretly Jewish--his evidence being, "Look at her!" This was primarily preposterous for Baba was staunchly proud of her heritage, and if she was Jewish she would have worn it like armour. This was also curious as Father had always been something of a covert anti-semite, only to "out" himself on his deathbed as a Jew? God only knows what karmic guilt trips he was untangling in his dying brain. In the end he was true to his Russian self. Putting gun to temple, much as his father had (having colluded with the Germans, on the losing end of the war)--a tradition I'm certain not to continue. (Suicide, who knows? Guns, never). Facing only pain and  the prospect of failing organs, I can't say I blame him for his exit strategy. I only wish he took Mother with him. Believe me, she did too.

The House of My Parents was never one to inspire music. In fact once I'd left home, I don't think I ever heard music played there again unless it was, incidentally, on TV. The premise of Chicago is that the whole world is Show Biz. Even the most dire circumstances can be turned into show-stopping numbers. No doubt a good many people love musicals as an escape from their hardships or dark corners. But I fell into them for giving me a narrative where there wasn't one. There was nothing in my home or family that remotely suggested Show Biz; nothing that suggests a song--even metaphorically. There's no "Mr. Cellophane" for my Father, no "Losing My Mind" for Mother. Just "A Lot of Livin' to Do" for me, alone, in the fantasy world I curated. I was 22, living my childhood dream in NY at the opening of Chicago; on the verge of starting my career in theater, getting the thrill of seeing Gwen Verdon & Chita Rivera in the flesh, in a smash. When the movie came out I was 50, thru the wash in both Bway & Hlwd, and facing depressing times--only exasperated by global insanity and an unwinnable war the world was rushing into. It didn't seem so at the time, but in many ways 1975 looks bucolic in retrospect. Upon reflection, Fred Ebb's lyrics to "Nowadays" have a richer meaning when one has an actual half-century of living experience to see the long road traveled:
              
               In fifty years or so
               It's gonna change, you know
               But oh, it's heaven
               Nowadays

Next Up: Phantom of the Opera

Report CardChicago
Overall Film:  A
Bway Fidelity:  A-
Songs from Bway:  11
Songs Cut from Bway:  5
Worst Omission:  "Me & My Baby"
New Songs:  1 (in end credits only) 
Standout Numbers:  "Roxie" "All I Care About"
               "Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag"
               "When You're Good to Mama"
Casting:  Definitive for some
Standout Cast: Rene Zellweger,
     John C. Reilly, Queen Latifah
Cast from Bway:  Chita Rivera (in cameo)
Direction: In the Spirit, but not shadow of Fosse
Choreography:  Son of Fosse
Scenic Design:  '20s stages & cells
Costumes:  Period perfect
Titles:  End titles: Cast photos, endless crawl
Oscar noms: 13, Won 6Best Picture, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Art Direction, Film Editing, Costumes, Sound-Mixing; Rene Zellweger, John C. Reilly, Queen Latifah, Rob Marsall (direction) Bill Condon (screenplay); Dion Beebe (cinematography); Song "I Move On," Kander & Ebb

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Hedwig & The Angry Inch

July 10, 2001,  New Line  96 minutes
Off-Bway musicals are generally small-scale affairs unsuited to uptown exploitation. The vast majority are quick, quiet flops--never to be heard of again. Among the hits, some are downtown tryouts for Bway. But there's also the Off-Bway musical that belongs Off-Bway yet transcends its origins to become part of the Bway lexicon (and often crossing over in revival): Godspell, You're a Good Man Charlie Brown, Dames at Sea, Little Shop of Horrors. To this list add the unlikely cult phenomenon Hedwig and the Angry Inch from 1998--which is just the 4th Off-Bway musical to get screen treatment. Unlikely because it's a most unusual hybrid of rock concert/drag/art-performance piece with a quirky, specific character backstory. There's really nothing else quite like it.

The brainchild of stage actor John Cameron Mitchell, the show presages the millennium mainstreaming of gender identity, whether it's dabbling in confusion, transference or pan-sexuality. A two-year hit downtown, 16 years later the musical was refit for Bway with an openly-gay main-stream TV star to great acclaim (a Tony) and sold-out houses. But Hedwig is such a juicy role that it tempts straight men as well. Mitchell's inspiration draws on bits from his upbringing as an army brat, using locales he knew from childhood: Germany, Kansas, and various mid-American posts, along with his rock 'n' roll influences. It's interesting the show is absent any rap--it's strictly a rock score (by Stephen Trask) written well into the hip-hop zeitgeist. (It would take Lin-Manuel Miranda to break thru that Bway ceiling).   Which is not say the score is arcane or 
irrelevant. It mostly serves as Hedwig's act, autobiographical torch songs sung in sadly off-the-mark bookings (by her clueless if enthusiastic agent) in a chain of strip-mall cafeterias called Bilgewaters (an example of many such amusing details.) Hurling her hardcore punk rage at overweight Midwesterners eating dinner is not without amusement but "Angry Inch," "Tear Me Down" and "Exquisite Corpse" aren't exactly--if you'll pardon the expression--music to my ears, either. Yet they sure make their points. More sonically appealing for the suburban diners Hedwig entertains (or rather, assaults), "Sugar Daddy" has a sweet country ramble, tho the lyrics might offend them if the music doesn't. To us jaded culterati, it's enjoyably peppy if inconsequential. "Wig in a Box" has an '80s Australian-pop feel, and is bubble-gum enuf to have its own bouncy ball--OK, wig--on lyrics for the final verse. And "Wicked Little Town" has a mature rock ballad heft to it--tho even after multiple hearings I still have no idea what the song is about. The show's manifesto, "The Origin of Love" is based on Aristophanes' speech in Plato's Symposium, a meditation on the genesis of human gender development--an uncommonly philosophic & poetic song for a glam rock act. Once Trask put this to music they were off to the races. The show developed slowly in performance at clubs as Mitchell moved from covers of David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac, Cher and Velvet Underground songs to Trask's new material as they evolved the text. Initially the story centered on gay teenaged Kansas boy, Tommy, raised on army bases (like Mitchell) who dreams of rock stardom. Hedwig sprung from a German babysitter in his youth who was also a part-time hooker. Mitchell developed an intriguing backstory which put Hedwig at the forefront, and Tommy Gnosis became her nemesis. After four years, an official theater piece opened in a hotel ballroom in the meatpacking district, (where the surviving crew of the Titanic had recuperated) and grew into a downtown sensation.

Curious enuf as a theater piece, it's rather extra-ordinary that interest, to say nothing of financing, materialized to adapt Hedwig for the screen. In fact, it was so quickly greenlit that it was in production long before the show closed Off-Bway--which necessi-tated a stream of replacment Hedwigs beginning with Michael Cerveris, Kevin Cahoon and the first female actor, Ally Sheedy. New Line wanted no one other than Mitchell, who could've simply filmed it as it was in a club setting, but instead, with support from the Sundance Institute, developed a layered, visual bio-history which unveils the present troubled state of his heroine, whom he plays to stunning affect. Rare is the actor who writes his own signature role, let alone rides it to the bank; and tho it was too indie for Hlwd, Mitchell did get a well-deserved Golden Globe nomination. New Line also let him write & direct the movie--proving that no one could do it better. Amazingly, what was by its nature, stagebound, was transformed into cinema. Yes, there's a good measure of Hedwig's "concerts" in various Bilgewaters eateries--but most are intercut with other scenes, illustrating the genesis behind the lyrics. Segments of her East Berlin childhood (as an incorrigible boy, Hansel) are filmed in blue filters; conveying life under Soviet oppression in minimal screen time. His home is so small, he has to play in the oven. 

More than just a one-liner, we actually see his head inside one--the oven walls filled with pictures and clippings as a would-be child's bedroom. In recollecting this memory we cut to Hedwig, fully coiffed, her head in oven--with more current clips & pics. It's an ingenious frame for a long monologue. The 6 year-old Hansel, Ben Mayer-Goodman does a hilarious St. Vitus dance to some thrasing rock; and the grown Hansel (John Cameron) lies naked in a field of rubble when the black army sargeant, Robinson discovers him--becoming his ticket out of the Eastern bloc. Despite being a "girlyboy" Hansel is not a  transexual. It's not his inner nature--but his outward necessity; a choice gone bad not only for the botched surgical condition (the angry inch) but by its very motivation (the Berlin wall); instantly invalidated by its fall, the very day Robinson abandons her in a Kansas trailer-park for another twink--and a boy at that. What's a damaged tranny to do? She recruits an all-Asian female backup  band  (made  up  of  army  wives)  that's  another 
funny visual--they could call themselves The Pacific Rim. A witty scene in a pile of abandoned tires has Hedwig sharing stories with her half-dozen fans (Hed-heads, who wear foam hair flips), while guzzling from a bottle of Zima. A row of portapotties are framed like Stonehenge outside the Menses Fair. These little details add up to something wonderful--the sense we're in the hands of erudite and creative people enjoying themselves as if living a private joke, and trusting enuf that we can catch on and join the party.

Casting, down to bit roles is spot on. A very baby-faced Michael Pitt plays to perfection the teenage Tommy, with a convincing transition to Goth rock stardom. (A decade later he would mature into the soulful heart of Boardwalk Empire.) As much stifled bandmate (and Hedwig's lover), Yitzhak--a man wanting to do drag, played by a woman--Miriam Shor is oddly haunting. I've seen her in dozens of different TV shows since--and am always jolted back to her  bearded  Yitzhak. 
Cut from the movie was an illuminating flashback to her meeting Hedwig in Croatia as competing drag acts. It doesn't make much narratiave sense--Croatia? When did Hedwig go there? Hadn't she escaped Berlin to reach America? The movie lands her with a thump--like Dorothy, on the opposite trajectory: Kansas not Oz. As Hedwig's peppy if improbable agent, Phyllis, Andrea Martin gives an unusually subdued performance (tho some of her best stuff is likewise left on the cutting room floor as seen in DVD bonus tracks. A whole thruline concerned the planting of a phone line in her head--then needing tech support) Among other DVD extras is a 2003 documentary about Hedwig from clubs to screen called Whether You Like it Or Not, which is quite fascinating for among other things showing actual footage of early incarnations of the show at Squeezebox, thru Off-Bway and onto film. It also reveals the man behind Stephen Trask--who's  mostly a  cipher as
one of The Angry Inch--Hedwig's punk band; but here gives sense of the amusing queerboy pal he was with Mitchell. And of course, the star him/herself reveals the process of evolution resulting in an exquisitely layered and subtle film performance that is as heartbreaking as much as it is hilarious. Even his retired army general father and Scottish mother are on camera to say how proud they are of John.

By 2014 gender identity politics had moved from the fringes to a topic in the national conversation, which convinced a consortium of producers including the original, David Binder, and the Shuberts, this once outlier of a musical, was a valid bet for Bway. With Neil Patrick Harris (who by then had made something of a name for himself as a song & dance awards host) throwing himself into Hedwig, the show was a smash. With no reason to close at Harris's six month withdrawl, they lined up a parade of star replacements: Book of Morman's Andrew Rannells, Dexter's Michael C. Hall, Glee's Darren Criss; Taye Diggs; possibly best of all they gave John Cameron Mitchell his creation back for a few winter months. It ran over 500 performances on Bway.

I had never bothered to investigate the Off-Bway show or recording (tho it wasn't a conscious rejection) so until the movie I was ignorant of the story as much as the music. What I knew was that drag was involved and that Hedwig recalled my own imagined drag persona (circa '92), Helsinka--a sort of East German Nico; a caustic stewardess for Finn-Air. But as in stand-up comedy I hadn't the passion behind it to devote true commitment. I was happy to see John Cameron fill in the details and hone it to perfection. The movie opened in "selected cities" on July 10, 2001--the last golden summer in the final gasp of the 20th century. Good buzz had me going the weekend it premiered, but whether I'd have rushed without need of entertaining an out of town visitor (a hippie/farmer from Arizona) in the wild ways of San Francisco is an open question. But the surprise was on me, for I hadn't expected to enjoy the film as much, let alone be moved by it at all. Movies were growing ever less interesting to me, and it had been awhile since I'd seen a new one that drew me back to the cinema in short order, once, let alone twice. I'd forgotten over the last 15 years how much I admired the picture. It's so beautifully esoteric.

This was all in line with what my primary practioner--holistic endocrinologist, psychic & chiropractor, Dr. Rhonda Emmert (who TC always dubbed "Donny" for Diane Keaton's boundary-less therapist in Manhattan)--suggested to me on one of my regular visits. Having aligned me on a path of consistent wellness (after a lifetime of regular colds) her advice to me was to Embrace the Esoteric. After my retreat from 42nd St. Moon, secure in both home & employment I found myself drifting into creative isolation. I went back to listening to music, intensely; I was on a tear with my art work, and I reactivated a project I'd first gleamed years before; an original  musical fable--this one to be written around unknown & underrated songs from obscure Bway musicals. The story was one I'd pitched to Zadan & Meron for Bette Midler & Cher in my Hlwd heyday--to which they said, Great! Go write it! (for free). A decade later, free of deadlines or financial constraints, I returned to it with fresh ideas, and two local players I'd met at 42M in mind to play the leads: rival Bway divas (Daisy, sunny & sweet onstage, vulgar & profane off; Hannah, broad & racy onstage, pious & polite off) fighting for one last triumph in a musical about Eva Peron as it might've been written by Irving Berlin in 1960. With Meg Mackay & Lesley Hamilton in mind, I developed an intricately plotted backstage comedy, curating songs from such forgotten musicals as Top Banana, Whoop Up, Sherry! Three Wishes for Jamie, & Flahooley among others. In August 2001 I invited them and another dozen actors and friends for a reading in my living room on South Van Ness. To everyone's surprise but mine, the script of When Stars Collide showed great potential, and I felt highly encouraged. Tho the songs played well, several wondered if an original score wouldn't be better? Since I knew no composers  I   hadn't   considered  it  an  option.   But  Meg 
Mackay, who came with very low expectations, now was high enuf to recruit her husband, musician & composer, Billy Philadelphia, to the project. The two of them did cabaret shows together, and Billy had radio & band gigs of his own. Well, I thought, what do I have to lose? In addition to developing the libretto, this now obliged me to write new lyrics for Billy to set to music. Strangely, I had never really tried it before, not daring to attempt it in my first musical book, Give Me the Sky (set to songs by Jule Styne, Comden & Green). And tho I found writing lyrics slow & slightly tortuous, (I get it, Mr. Lerner) I really liked it once I found out I was actually pretty good at it. Now I was back writing with excitement & passion, and When Stars Collide looked like it was heading toward a life beyond my imagination.

With the publication of a lavish & exhaustive oral history, The Beatles Anthology opened a flood of archival material, and I unexpectedly found myself sucked in to studying the Fab Four with remedial devotion. Of course they had been there (on the sidelines) thruout my childhood, but I hadn't fully appreciated the sheer "bigger than Jesus" impact they left on history and culture. They and the 1960s are inseparable; and so, for better & worse, am I. From my absorption in the era another idea for a musical was born: a Mod Alice set in a Wonderland of London emerging from a post-war austerity--the working class drabness so perfectly realized in Terence Davies' Distant Voices Still Lives; bursting into a Technicolor Carnaby Street peopled with equivalents of the white rabbit, mad hatter, chesire cat and Queen of Hearts--set to a Beatles-like score: Strawberry Alice. Now I had two musicals on my docket. Could it be while nearing age 50 I had finally come home to what I'd wanted from the start?

I saw plenty of theater that year.  Local SF productions of shows I'd seen elsewhere were typically mediocre. I made two trips to NY in the spring of 2001--where Bway was awash in revivals: The Music Man, Bells Are Ringing, Follies, and at Encores! Bloomer Girl & Hair. The only new musicals I saw were the unfairly maligned Seussical and the overly praised Producers. In LA I saw a wonderful production of A New Brain, and a reborn Flower Drum Song, by David Henry Hwang--an unexpected fantasy come true--that was in  many ways  brilliantly reimagined, 
and in a few, horribly misguided. As a passionate partisan of this lesser-known R&H musical, I took it upon myself to speak with Hwang (at a screening of the movie months later in SF), and write him a detailed critique (peppered with praise) to get it right before Bway. A few changes were made (most importantly the inclusion of the song, "Sunday"--tho not to best advantage) but the show didn't score with audiences in NY, and I never understood why it didn't simply come to SF for an open-ended run (for it seems all the Asians I ever knew loved the show--primarily known from the movie) and if LA could draw big numbers of them, the Bay Area was a goldmine of a market. Some things seem so obvious to me, I wonder how everyone else can miss them.

As my Hlwd years faded into the past, I found my enjoyment of its present product growing less and less. Almost Famous hit a major pleasure nerve, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon simply blew my mind, but little else had made much impact on me. On the other hand I was just discovering Fox's '40s musicals with Betty Grable & Carmen Miranda--in Technicolor so lurid as to hypnotize. There were still corners of film history I hadn't digested. But if millennial movies were lacking, a new era in television was blooming with the explosion of cable-- which I had finally surrendered to after my rebellion against pay TV became untenable.  In my youth television programming was low-budget, unsophisticated, juvenile--perfect for kids; Movies were primarily adult. By the turn of the century it had reversed: films were ever more cartoonish while TV was flourishing with complex, adult programs like The Sopranos, Sex & the City, Absolutely Fabulous, The West Wing and Six Feet Under. But this was also the birthing years of non-scripted "reality" television, and I wasn't immune from the voyeuristic invitations of Survivor, Big Brother, The Bachelor, and their like--before they whipped into a tiresome & toxic froth of narcissistic exhibitionism that led all the way to the path of Donald Trump.

Beyond the opiate of TV; I spent more hours on my writing and artwork, and many more absorbing music: comprehensively working my way thru the '70s--'90s Bway catalog; the Beatles journey, or my latest archival find: Arthur Schwartz songs in early recordings (giving inspiration for a song revue--an even more modest reach, yet lacking enuf passion to fuel the effort) among others. And as I was so taken by surprise with the Hedwig movie, I bought the soundtrack, immediately. In the entertaining doc,  Whether  You  Like  It or  Not,  Stephen  Trask  rather 
arrogantly claims most rock musicals are bad--impure and artificial to the rock idiom. (Perhaps he had in mind the one Bway stalwart whose name he shared at birth: Stephen Schwartz). He's quite wrong, of course, and it doesn't help his cause to tout his one musical achievment as a measure. Much as I'd like to say otherwise I found, and still find the score a good deal less engaging when separated from the film. And that only reinforces the quality of the movie; where the songs seem inseparable from the narrative, from the pleasure to be had. When simply heard, they're middling rock. Within a few weeks I ran to the movie a third time at the boutique Embarcadero Cinema. It was (fittingly?) the last movie I would see before the world fell apart, just a few days later on that September morning.

Next Up: Chicago
Report Card:  Hedwig & The Angry Inch
Overall Film:  A-
Stage Fidelity:  B+
Songs from Stage:  10
Songs Cut from Stage:  0 
New Songs:  3 (2 just on soundtrack)
Standout Numbers: "Sugar Daddy"
     "Wig in a Box"
Casting:  Judicious
Standout Cast: John Cameron Mitchell
Cast from Stage: Mitchell, Miriam Shor
Direction:  Imaginative, un-narcissistic
Choreography: Gyrations by Jerry Mitchell  
Scenic Design: Budget wonders
Costumes: Wigs and more wigs
Standout Location: Bilgewaters
Titles: Concentric neon circles
Oscar noms:  Too indie