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. Coming next: The Last Five Years

Sunday, February 1, 2015

New York, New York

June 17, 1977  United Artists   163 minutes
Recently, as I submerged myself deeper into TCM as audio/visual wallpaper, I've noticed that movies made after 1968 have a different feel and trigger for me. Yes, the social fabric and culture was radically changing, but I was also moving out of adolescence into adulthood. Rewatching movies I grew up seeing in first run, first night, big city showings often brings a sense of disappointment; falling short of the excitement they may have once generated. Nothing demonstrates that better than New York, New York, which I have just watched for the 10th time, but the first--quite tellingly--in 27 years. Once again I am straying off subject, for this has but trace connection to Bway (Kander & Ebb yes, and Liza, maybe) but was of enormous impact to me at the time.

The summer I moved to NY coincided with the breakthru films by George Lucas and Martin Scorcese. I didn't care much for Mean Streets, which was too street, too brutal and gritty for me. But American Graffiti was a personal touchstone movie, which explains why I was there on opening day in May '77 for Lucas's next one: Star Wars--that at best, I thought cute. By then Scorcese had released Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and Taxi Driver, both astounding, so New York, New York--opening on the heels of Star Wars--had a lot more going for it in my book than a Sci-Fi western. Hlwd and the new school of '70s directors were on the whole revisionists. There were only so many genres in film, and all of them had been done for decades. Scorcese's mode was to infuse a Cassavetes-like docudrama onto old tropes: the gangster movie; the woman's drama; the horror noir. Now he was ready to tackle the musical. And tackle it he did. Drawn to a script by Earl MacRauch, Scorcese liked the tension of a show biz romance told frankly and realistically in the most artificial of settings; the love child of Cassavetes and Vincente Minnelli. The problem isn't so much in the contrast between scenes and songs, but in the contradictory approach in making each. As usual, the musical numbers were recorded first, carefully rehearsed and precisely filmed; whereas the scenes progressed ever more improvised during filming. A practice which Scorcese himself admits was problematic. The technique was best used to develop a scene in rehearsal, then distill it into script--which Scorcese cites in one successful case on the DVD's audio commentary. But he hadn't the luxury of delaying production so rehearsals gave way to actual takes, which makes the script seem often arbitrary and too talkative--more careless banter than illuminating dialogue. And at 163 minutes it's anything but taut. In fact, we come out knowing little about Jimmy Doyle or Francine Evans--and aside from their manner and their ambitions we learn nothing of their origins or history.
There's another schism in the film's score. It begins with Tommy Dorsey on VJ Day and proceeds with American songbook standards in big-band, pop and jazz interpretations thru two thirds of the film. But once the marriage busts and a passage-of-time montage turns Liza  --er, Francine into a Star, the score turns into a Kander & Ebb original; and tellingly gives the movie a shot of adrenalin. As a '40s band singer, Liza restrains her natural vocal personality; she mimics the smoother singers of the era (Jo Stafford, Doris Day) without either convincing or wowing us; it's when she shifts into Kander & Ebb that we get an honest dose of her uniqueness. The First K&E tune, "There Goes the Ballgame" is a throwaway done in imitation of Peggy Lee--which Liza does rather well. We cross into original material for good with "But the World Goes Round," the film's equivalent of Cabaret's "Maybe This Time," given the stand-and-sing spotlight common to all Diva vehicles since Streisand's "My Man" proved less is more. The song's big finish is reprised later with a live audience, as lead-in to the film's 11 o'clock anthem, the title tune (likewise with Cabaret) that instantly had Liza's signature on it. Frank Sinatra would later steal it away from her--the last popular song he would make "his"--more an honorarium than achievement as Sinatra's recording is almost embarrassing in both the decline of his range, and his flubbing of lyrics. At this stage his reluctance in doing extra takes was unfortunate. Sadder, too, that Liza's version has taken a back seat as it's not only better, it features her in the prime of her career. And no less than what Fosse did with "Cabaret," Scorcese turns "New York, New York" into a real visual stunner, the camera gliding thru the skyline nightclub, catching Francine (now morphed wholly into Liza!) in scarlet blouse over shiny black tights;  the  patented  Fred  Ebb  moves  woven  into
the song's lyrics (moves she'll do the same three decades and 50 pounds later). As Rodgers spun golden waltzes, Kander excelled at vamps--and "NY-NY" was no exception. It's a ballsy move to lay claim for a new official theme song. But despite some cheesy Ebb lyrics ("Cream of the crop at the top of the heap"--anyone?) it works anyhow--and couldn't have been filmed any better. More ambitious is the extended "Happy Endings" sequence, built along the lines of MGM ballets by Vincente Minnelli, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly. This was the first sequence filmed, and it thrilled the studio heads to no end--giving Scorcese confidence and free license. But as filming progressed and the flip half of the story took over in a wholly different way, "Happy Endings" didn't play as originally intended--and the eleven and half minute opus was shorn down to its final two. But once the film was dismissed and played out (to an anemic $6,000,000 in rentals--half of what Taxi Driver made; and compared to Star Wars: $127,00,000--just in 1977 alone) the entire sequence was restored soon enuf; and you can see why the suits got excited at their first look. "Happy Endings" is an extended playlet--an usherette's fantasy that ends up coming true--like the special material K&E wrote for Liza's concerts (such as "Ring Them Bells"). Bway's Larry Kert was brought in to play her vis a vis: a Bway producer, in what's little more than a cliché Star-Is-Born fable, told in several sequences shifting sets and costumes. No effort is made to outdo its sources, in fact it's much less elaborate than many MGM classics. And that's just fine. The jazz sequences are excitingly filmed, as are all the musical moments. Unlike later, millennial film musicals, with their ceaseless flash editing, Scorcese's camera (manned by cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs) glides thru these scenes as airborn as the music itself. Scorcese and DeNiro had already cemented a bond that would bring them greater glory in the years ahead, but Marty also fell for Liza in a big way--they had an affair--but more consequently, Scorcese embarked on directing his first (and likely only) Bway musical;  Kander 
& Ebb's newest platform for Liza, The Act. The show which tried out in LA & SF while NY, NY was in first release, was little more than a nightclub act pumped up into a backstage confessional, from a script by George Furth that followed A Chorus Line's lead in '70s deconstruction. It was a entire evening of K&E special material (for Liza), songs not in her actual character, but meant as metaphoric comments on her life. It's the same old K&E trope: Life-as-Show-Biz, that permeates their entire career. Whatever Scorcese understood about cinema did not translate easily for the stage. The show was beset with problems, and Gower Champion stepped in toward the end to prop it up some, uncredited. Burning on all cylinders, Liza won another Tony (over little competition) and partied like it was 1999. These were the Studio 54 days (or should we say nights) as well, and Liza, in her Halston gowns (onstage & off) was at the center of it all, hurtling toward breakdown. I think her NYNY performance is both overlooked and underrated. She's terrific in the dramatic scenes; the best being the final explosion in the car--a shouting match that turns physical while in transit. Scorcese acknowledges his inspiration comes baldly from Minnelli's Bad & The Beautiful, where Lana Turner has a hysterical fit at the wheel of a car; and even more so from the later Two Weeks in Another Town, where Cyd Charisse takes it to a whole 'nother level in a moving vehicle. DeNiro, particularly at the start of his career was always fascinating to watch, but this was his first romantic role, and he sort of creeps into it, still cloaked in his tougher threads. Tho Liza's '40s look is a bit distracting and slightly clownish, she and DeNiro are never less than interesting. If only the script was tighter, less off-the-cuff.
My 25 year old self would surely scoff at the reasoned assessment I can now make of the film, as it was my biggest obsession of 1977.  I did drop acid for the first time and sit in the Ziegfeld as it magically crept on--but I'd seen it already, twice. So you can't chalk up my irrational fervor to chemical enhancement; it only cemented my passion. Aside from the elaborate studio sets, which seemed suddenly fresh in a cinematic era nearly devoid of artificiality, and the pleasure of seeing Liza in a film worthy of her talents, what most obssessed me was DeNiro. I was bowled over by Taxi Driver, so perhaps I was less inclined to see the distasteful aspects of his Jimmy Doyle by comparison with Travis Bickle. But this was also the peak years of my attraction to Jewish and Italian men--naturally enuf, my NY years. I hadn't any problem being gay, but I was getting a good deal of attention from women that year, and was wrestling with my own sense of manhood. I find it amusing now that my blueprint for masculine behavior would come from DeNiro's Jimmy Doyle--who even Scorcese later admitted is really an asshole. He's certainly not as charming as I once thought. But in 1977 he was what took my fancy.

Back in January, dumped by my first boyfriend after only a month, and sick of suffering another freezing winter--this one in a drafty theater built in 1924--Bill & I decided to throw a party. We chose what proved to be the coldest night of winter--but apparently everyone was sick of the extended cold snap, and people trekked from as far away as Brooklyn to our two-room apartment, which filled wall-to-wall with at least 80 people, fulfilling my fantasy Breakfast at Tiffany's party without really trying. At the peak moment I pulled out the Mancini soundtrack (over which I've always been obsessed) and blasted "Something for Cat" and "Loose Caboose" the brassy party tracks while snaking my way thru the packed bodies, my Holly Golightly cigarette holder held aloft. The place was so crammed I'd meet people months later who told me they'd been there whom I'd never seen or even met. And again, not a single complaint from my neighbors tho this went late on into Sunday morning.

I don't know if it had previously occurred to me but working in theater, I soon found out, meant never having time to see any theater. Or movies, or television (in those pre-VCR days). And much as I enjoyed my experience at the Cherry Lane, six months of running sound cues for Sexual Perversity in Chicago was enuf. The show was closing in April. I had gotten rather tired of the staff, but was saddest to part weekly ways with my backstage co-hort Danny Stern. He was so young and poor and anxious to get on with life; who knew within two years he'd be one of the stars of the Oscar nominated pic, Breaking Away. I had also gotten used to a steady paycheck and wondered what I'd do next. Conveniently, the next production moved in right away and needed extra stagehands, so I was recruited but, alas, not Danny. It was an truly grueling rehearsal period--with excruciating technical detail. The author, director and star was Robert Wilson, in congress with dancer Lucinda Childs, in a piece they called I Was Sitting on My Patio This Guy Appeared I Thought I Was Hallucinating. Wilson was so exacting in his demands; lights and props had to be adjusted if they were even a quarter inch off. A particular Swarovski wine glass and no other had to be used, etc. The show itself, which dared to be served in two parts was such soporific art-installation-cum-theatre I literally cried when I saw how much hard work was sweated for such pretentious crap. Despite some qualified glowing reviews, the show closed after 9 endless performances to my great relief. The only event worth mentioning was going to a party on May 10th at 121 E. 81st where we saw Andy Warhol and just missed Jackie O. Everyone was talking about the news that Joan Crawford had just died. Patio, as we abbreviated it, was equally dead in a few weeks. After nine months of backstage work, I was eligible for unemployment again.

Summer came and I took a breather. After so many months I was free on a Friday night, and able to attend the opening of New York, New York on June 17th at the Ziegfeld. My summer bellwether, I'd see it four more times by August. I hadn't been back to California since I'd moved to NY in '73 so it was time. This was the first I'd seen of the new 2-story house my parents expanded into after I'd left them on their own. The first since my father's open heart surgery which neither side felt would have benefitted with my presence nearby; the first since my childhood black Lab, Smokey, died under mysterious circumstances my father wouldn't talk about with anyone, but which Baba surmised he'd run over in the driveway, and then, heartbroken, finished him off with a pistol. So Russian. Truth is, I can't recall much of my stay with them that August. It wasn't long at any rate as I quickly headed down to LA, where Ken alighted after leaving NY along with some other college buddies (including the compelling but ambiguous, Reed) who were now renting a 3 bedroom house in Venice. The Los Angeles I'd grown up in was in the farthest west corner of the San Fernando Valley. Venice, or any place over the hill, was a whole different LA, and it was quite seductive away from the concrete humid jungle of NY's summer. I missed the male camaraderie of my college buds, and felt the pull of creative energies--perhaps further collaborations were in store. I also went down to San Diego for a few days to see Micky Martin--during which time Elvis died, and  I visited for the last time my beloved childhood neighbor-housewife, Dodo--who used to make burgers and root beer floats for me and her son, Stevie, while we watched The Flintstones on Friday nights. (Several years younger than I, Steve was now, sadly, slipping into a life of delinquency.) Another college buddy, Helen Maciazek drove me back to LA in a mild hurricane with one hand on the wheel and one on a joint or a bottle of Jack Daniels. She drove straighter than most of my friends do sober. It saddened me that I felt closer to my old friends than most of the ones I had in NY. Returning north, I caught Liza in Shine It On! (as The Act was called in tryout) at the Orpheum in San Francisco. It needed work. 
So did I. As my parents had no respect or interest in what I was doing with my life, being with them was like inhabiting an Ingmar Bergman film (Don't ask/Don't tell was their all-encompassing principle long before Bill Clinton stole it.) Mother would sneak a few bills she put aside into my palm when Father wasn't looking, but she had as much blind comtempt for my lifestyle (and I don't mean sexual) as he, and dealt with it by returning to her default mode: infantilizing me. Father's indifference was more than made up by her ceaseless smothering. A few days was all I could suffer.

But the seed of my ultimate return was certainly planted on that trip to California, tho I knew not how, not when. Of more immediate concern back in NY, was a job. Laura's girlfriend, Barbara Stones worked for a radio producer, Bob Franklin, who needed someone to make dupes of program tapes and send them off to radio stations across the country. I had sunk to manual labor in radio. Not quite what I was looking for. But then what was I looking for now? I hadn't the time or the money to be an avid theatergoer anymore, but then there seemed to be less interesting shows, and musicals were nearly extinct. Back in February the Cherry Lane staff was comped to a preview of David Mamet's Bway debut, American Buffalo; the show which fired up his career. I didn't get it, or like it at all. Was this the future of Bway? The Spring of '77 brought a flurry of old school energy; the first Bway Sondheim revue, Side by Side by Sondheim, a Cy Coleman bauble, I Love My Wife, and the juggernaut, Annie--which above all else is indebted to the melodic  charm  of  Charles  Strouse.   But  Lily Tomlin in
Appearing Nitely at the Biltmore theater was possibly the funniest two hours I'd ever spent up to that point. Six of us attended the first preview, and laughed so much we were sore afterward. Tomlin (& Jane Wagner's) follow-up play, The Search for Signs... was indisputably their masterpiece, but Appearing Nitely had laid much of the framework and style, and for its sheer breadth and surprise will remain a slightly more cherished memory. Oh, and Julie Newmar was in the audience. Talk about cream of the crop at the top of the heap!

Thruout the next decade I maintained my love for New York, New York, and always thought the movie grossly misunderstood. Now I must concede that time has not validated my opinion. The full measure of the film's perceived failure was clear from the Oscar nominations it received: zero. I suppose it was too much to expect DeNiro to be cited, but Liza should've been in contention. (She did, of course, receive a Golden Globe nod) And wasn't it deserving of recognition in at least some technical categories? Did Airport '77 really have more notable Art Direction? Most shocking of all, tho, was the snubbing of the title song. When was the last time you heard The Sherman Bros.' "Slipper & Rose Waltz", Sammy Fain's "Someone's Waiting for You" or "Candle on the Water" from Pete's Dragon? These were deemed worthier than New York's latest anthem, as well as "But the World Goes Round"--another likely contender. The Oscar went to Joseph Brooks' treacley ballad, "You Light Up My Life." But in the year of Star Wars, Annie Hall, Close Encounters of Third Kind, The Turning Point, and Saturday Night Fever, it was New York, New York that lit up my life.

Next Up: A Little Night Music

Report Card:   New York, New York
Overall Film:  B
New Songs:  4  (by Kander & Ebb)
Old Songs:  14 (various pop & jazz standards)
Standout Numbers:  "New York New York"
     "Happy Endings" "But the World Goes Round"
Casting:  Nice blend of obvious & unexpected
Standout Cast: Liza with an A
Direction:  Smooth, studied, experimental
Choreography:  Minimal, but peppy Ron Field
Scenic Design:  Salute to Studio Fakery
Costumes:  '40s guys & dolls
Standout Sets: Starlight Terrace, Harlem club
Titles: Retro Technicolor over NY skyline
Oscar Noms: None

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