September 18, 1992, Miramax/Disney 98 minutes
I could be excused for skipping this one for a number of reasons, but the sad fact is that between Little Shop of Horrors and Evita--a span of a decade--no other musicals from Bway were brought to the screen--a record unknown since the advent of sound. Sarafina! was a Bway musical more by accident than design. It began as a daring social indictment staged by local Johannesburg talent in June of '87 and was quickly snapped up by Lincoln Center Theater that same October for their matchbox Mitzi Newhouse Theater beneath the Vivian Beaumont. The reception was such that a Bway transfer happened by January, where the show ran (at the Cort) for a year and a half, in the season of Phantom of the Opera and Les Miz. Written by Mbongeni Ngema (with Hugh Masakela), Sarafina! was about Soweto high school students putting on a play about Nelson Mandela--with nearly constant breaks for song & dance. Ngema wrote the title part for young actress Leleti Khumalo--who at some point became his wife. She went with the show to NY, and subsequently its film version--a cross-cultural triumph for both her and Ngema (who not only wrote the show but directed and co-choreographed it as well). Until this, South Africa had made few appearances on Bway's musical stages; the best known being Kurt Weill's last musical, Lost in the Stars, based on what is probably the most famous South African novel, Cry the Beloved Country. Lesser known or remembered was The Zulu & the Zayda--a play written for Yiddish star comic, Menasha Skulnik and Ossie Davis; with enuf music by Harold Rome to get an album. Another revue, Wait a Minim! got a year's run at the tiny John Golden Theater in '66. And tho it dealt with issues of apartheid, its cast was entirely white. Times had changed much since then and audiences were ready to accept "the music of liberation" by the youth of Soweto on the verge of national freedom.
On stage the show was a virtual wall of music & dance, and not on the surface an obvious movie candidate. But if its scholastic setting and message of uplift was enuf for Disney (thru their adult arm, Hollywood Pictures--along with Miramax), the shift in tone from the original show was anything but Disney material. Who knows how much imput Ngema had in the screenplay opposite co-author, William Nicholson; but the student pageant was mostly gone, replaced by a more linear, realistic recounting of the '76 Soweto riots as they unfolded at the Morris Isaacson High School--seen thru the eyes of the title heroine; a dutiful teenage girl radicalized by an avalanche of unjust oppression. A good amount of music was retained, tho a majority was used as an overlayed soundtrack rather than performed by the characters. Tho the film begins with an act of juvenile violence (burning down a schoolhouse) our intro to Sarafina leads into a joyous fantasy number that falsely augurs a musical jamboree to follow. It's an unusually happy Wanting Song, as "Sarafina" romps with her community, a star in her own mind. But there's nothing like it that follows. There are many moments with obvious lead-ins to a song that never materializes. Instead, tribal voices rise over montage or panorama, most of the lyrics in Zulu--thus meaningless to us, except as rhythmic exotica of the sort mined by Paul Simon on his Graceland album-which had recently conquered America. And if the movie avoids becoming a characterlogical musical, it soon seems to reject the very notion of being a musical at all. It is isn't long before it turns into a chamber of horrors, depicting a catalog of violence and torture, all of which may well be real, but is shown with such graphic gratuity as to be incompatible with a musical. (Cabaret was chilling too, but we didn't watch long scenes of Jews being gassed in the showers.) But Sarafina! is surprisingly, excessively brutal to watch (something so antithetical to the Disney brand) and not an experience uplifted by its "sound of freedom" or "music of liberation." Not that these stories shouldn't be told--warts and all; but don't sell us a musical and feed us The Killing Fields.
Doubtless little of that concerned director Darrell James Roodt, a white Afrikaner who envisoned making an epic indicment on his native land at the dawn of Mandela's release and national liberation. Following this, Disney tried Roodt out in Hlwd for a Patrick Swazye pic (Father Hood), but the helmer returned home to remake Cry the Beloved Country, and stayed to become South Africa's most prolific filmmaker, wtih over 35 movies in as many years. Screenwriter William Nicholson was a Brit who was later Oscar nominated for Shadowlands and Gladiator. (Still later he'd be credited for Les Miz.) The film takes such a left turn, it's hard to believe he ever sat in the same room with Mbonjeni Ngema. Vibrant & charming as Leleti Khumalo is, the Tony-nominated star wasn't launched on a Hlwd career, but returned with Roodt to JoBurg where she'd make occasional films on homegrown themes. Whoopi Goldberg, whose Bway exposure skyrocketed her to a film and media career, provided ballast to the pic's commercial prospects, while satisfying her own sense of nobility portraying a coyly subversive teacher inciting her young'uns to bringing down the last brick of apartheid. Like Robin Williams, Whoopi knows how to underplay, and does so here with an accent that never lets us forget her roots as a comic of many voices. She is killed off halfway thru the story, but we are gratefully spared seeing this one gruesome incident; there are too many others--including Sarafina herself, who suffers thru a brutal prison sentence. A crime of another sort was casting Miriam Makeba as Sarafina's mother, and then giving the legendary singer (and anti-apartheid activist) no song in which to shine. That, in itself, says all that's wrong with the filmmaker's choices. The punctuation mark in the title--carried over from a vastly different stage show--is as misplaced as a clown at a funeral.
The movie opened September 18, 1992 at the Sutton Theater (and others) in NY and nationwide. Movie distribution had radically changed in the previous 15 years and there was no longer a slow, or platform release--the Road Show format was forever kaput. Movies, too were shifting as the '80s moved into the '90s. Tho it was the world I was then swimming (drowning?) in, there were fewer films that excited or inspired me; and more that seemed--to quote an actual title--dumb & dumber. A few exceptions were brilliant: Woody Allen's Crimes & Misdemeanors, Paul Mazursky's last good film: Enemies: a Love Story, Oliver Stone's double whammy: JFK and The Doors, in the same year; James Ivory's pinnacle in Howard's End. More guilty pleasures were found in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Postcards from the Edge, HouseSitter, Ground Hog Day, and one very forgotten but vastly underrated gem, Rude Awakening--films I could watch over & over, and did. But gaining purchase in Hlwd as a writer was less about talent or ideas, but finding strong alliances. After Paramount put Just Deserts into turnaround, and my solo effort (April in October) wasn't coming together, I got a new agent and continued making rounds at studios pitching ideas. It was a lot like Robert Altman's Hlwd satire, The Player. One pitch (that Lisa Loomer & I had considered) was a contempo remake of Shop Around the Corner (or, if you will, She Loves Me) with the central lovers anonymous callers on the then-current fad of "976" phone-line services--something thoroughly obsolete in short order and entirely forgotten today. Of course Nora Ephron would later find a more lasting hook with You've Got (e)Mail. Another idea was an update of The Solid Gold Cadillac--in which a minor stockholder rises to high position by asking too many questions of her corporate board. Or one about a Beverly Hills homeless woman who takes up residence inside Neiman Marcus. Or a thriller in which NY comes to a standstill with a spate of fatal elevator falls, called Drop Dead. There were half a dozen more, but what I began writing (without pitching) excited me most: the story of a man who's been having separate, secret affairs with a husband & wife for years, while together the trio are the best of friends. I saw it unfold in non-linear flashbacks as the married couple drive to Vegas, slowly coming to discover their mutual secret. The structure, if not the theme stolen from Stanley Donen's Two for the Road, with shades of Harold Pinter's Betrayal (a criminally underrated movie.) tho mine was more comic, as the title would imply: Investment Secrets of The Marx Bros. My inner circle was very encouraging, but I didn't dare pitch this one in meetings--it was too special. The nature of Hlwd at the time, combined with my financial desperation, forced me to direct my energies toward something more "commercial," which meant "high-concept": cross-breeding familiar ideas (i.e. Rain Man meets Working Girl) as so beautifully parodied in The Player.
Such was my ambition then, even as old as 36, that I hilariously journaled my list of intended future works in numbers: 27 films, 18 plays (including, presumably musicals) 3 books, 3 TV series, 99 paintings & 9 operas! Only my advanced age allows me to confess such naive aspirations. By my 37th birthday, I was forced to seek work at the Columbia temp pool on the old Desilu lot on Gower St. The paychecks were paltry but sorely needed. I worked at menial tasks on various sitcoms: Who's The Boss, 227, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Married With Children, seeing first hand how tedious TV production was--not to mention the early '90s was no Golden Age of TV comedy.
Shortly after unshackling myself from the addictive, if torturous friendship of Alan G. my pal Greg Wolfe invited me to some groups on men's intimacy and empowerment, which in turn led to the California Men's Gathering, where I found several new friends, including a short-time lover, but more significantly a new writing partner. Randy Levinson was a low-level exec at New World Pictures which was heading for extinction. A tyro writer, and not particularly gifted at that; he was however, someone with development experience and I was hungry for someone to bounce ideas off other than myself. This was the gold rush era for spec script sales--a lucky few going for upwards of a million dollars. We were both hungry and determined to cash in. After exploring some ideas, one came to me, whole, like a bolt of lightning, a few days into 1990. A fifty-ish woman gets mistaken for the long-sought birth mother of a young man, and unable to disappoint him goes along with the charade to the benefit of both; when she mutiplies this altruistic scam by three the ruse gets out of hand. From the start this was intended in my mind for Shirley MacLaine--tho it suited any number of aging actresses. Randy got strong encouragment from his contacts, and by the time we finished the script in five months I had, unofficially, yet another agent, an acquaintance of
Randy's: Devra Lieb; and the buzz on the script was so high, every studio in town was axious to read it. Early reactions sent our hopes sky high, and a bidding war was fully predicted by one & all. So it was quite a shock that My Other Mother not only had no bidders, but some even took offense in our kidding the sanctity of motherhood. But the real truth was that, just like Just Deserts, our film was female-centric in a testosterone-driven climate. Unlike my last experience, the bidding war gambit meant the entire pillar of hope collapsed in just two weeks. It was back to the drawing board.
It was also back to the employment agency as Columbia wasn't finding me enuf steady gigs. I wound up instead at Disney--not the lot, mind you, but on the sterile 22nd floor of a corporate satellite office in Burbank, where I began a temp job typing warranty cards into a data base, next to a dim-witted woman from Virginia whose morning began at 8:05 with the fissured opening of a half-gallon bottle of Diet Pepsi which she'd consume in its entirety by lunch. After several months of death-inducing boredom (but a desperately needed paycheck) I--but not my temp neighbor--was promoted to customer service phone rep for Disney's early computer games (on floppy discs) for young children. There were other aspiring screenwriters in the department, and we all felt the hand of corporate stinginess, which gave rise to the wide-spread use of Mauschwitz (or Duckau). There weren't that many daily calls, which gave me ample time to fool around with Sim City (which my colleagues loaded onto my computer), and develop some serious sciatica (which in turn led me to a steady series of acupuncturists). Disney was then more adamant on maintaining a squeaky-clean family rep, which over time tried my patience with some customers. One mother wrote to complain about a game called Mickey's Birthday Party because she didn't allow her children to celebrate birthdays. Then don't buy the damn game! was a natural response, but instead I wrote her back that if she insists on depriving her children of a day all-others get to enjoy than perhaps Disney products were too extreme for her. Naturally, she, enraged, wrote to my higher ups, which got me a lecture, but not fired--altho it was clear my days were numbered.
In the meantime Randy & I plunged into our next screenplay--this one intentionlly male-oriented, a comedy about an ex-gambling addict who endures an unexpected layover in Vegas, while his brother races from LA to save him. Green Felt Jungle wrote itself quickly and in six months was making the studio rounds as Recovering Marty. My expectations lowered made the rejections less painful; the consensus oddly being Hlwd "wasn't interested in Vegas stories"--and how quickly that changed! Subsequently Devra encouraged me to drop Randy (her friend?) as collaborator and write on my own. Easier said than done. As a vote of her confidence she set me up with her own girlfriend, Janet Meyers, a junior exec at Imagine. Before our first meeting I had another bolt-from-the-blue idea that I thought fantastic: an ad exec gets hit on the head during a commerical shoot in a Nevada ghost town, and a whole community of ghosts--all dead since a major gas leak a century earlier--come alive to him. (The whole thing came to me from a New Yorker cover by Chas Addams from 1953.) But Janet was more enthused about another idea, a seedling from my earliest screenplay attempt a dozen years before in SF, Chinese Breakfast; reimagined as a Billy Wilder-ish story of a cable car driver who reluctantly marries his brother's mistress to prevent her deportation, while pining for his brother's wife. When his brother unexpectedly dies, he has his hands full. Janet--who essentially took Randy's place as sounding board and collaborator took endless working meetings from then on, while Randy crept back into corporate with a new position at Universal as a TV development lackey--with the promise of finding me work on a re-write or polish. At first he could do no better than supply me with a pile of scripts to read and write the dreaded "coverage," that's an industry staple. These were mostly of the bottom-of-the-pile sort, and a true window on just how much amateur work floods the market. After some time and with undue agitation he got me a rewrite for a sci-fi script that was beyond pedestrian. I did a wholesale rethink (as Amy Jones had done on Just Deserts) which I thought quite beyond what the script deserved; but my efforts were received so cooly, Randy shunned me from any further contact with his bosses--altho they kept my central plot conceit solving the story's major problem. C'est la Hollywood.
My parents who never had the least faith in my talent or capability in pursuing a Bway or Hlwd career were little impressed with the inroads I had met--which while modest were highly encouraging. At a time when every able body in town was writing a screenplay, I had actually sold one; was welcome to pitch anything I wanted all over town, and could get any finished script into top hands at all the studios. Yet somehow I couldn't find that just-right partnership that makes a winning team. But then I've always been a sucker for underdogs (being one myself), and a bit self-sabotaging around true winners. On the other hand I sure found a bounty of friends--the best people I ever met were in LA, even if very few were natives. I was essentially an Angelino, tho Canoga Park to LA was as Far Rockaway is to Manhattan.
'91 saw the resurgence of childhood fave The Addams Family with a new big-budget movie promised for Thanksgiving, reminding me how personal, nearly ancestral, the clan felt to me. As my family name, was an lame grab for Americanization by my father--changing an already phony Russian identity off black-market papers to slip out of Germany; there wasn't much ancestral heritage in my being V. Penn Junior. I had toyed with the idea of changing my name but (like a tattoo) nothing had ever come to me before as appropriate, as lasting; until I concluded the one cherished & most loving family I related to was none other than the Addams. From seven letters, my new title came to thirteen. Laura did a ceremony with my nearest & dearest 13 friends (where I was shocked to learn how many had changed or altered their names) and from then on I was an Addams--the weird one who likes musicals. By the time of the movie's release I had taken the mantle of my new identity to heart, and was looking at new ways to express myself. That summer (on the very day I split with Alan for good) I saw John Epperson's Lypsinka, which ignited a dormant seed of performance energy that had been extinguished by my early attempts at standup comedy. On my 39th birthday I tried out my own
drag creation (for friends only): Helsinka--an ex-Finnair stewardess & East German heroin addict--and lipsynched to "Maybe This Time" by daytime soap-opera star Eileen Fulton off a promo record I got years ago, temping in a PR agent's office in NY. Never released, the disc is so obscure even Epperson had never heard of it; and so hilariously erratic that it's a surefire laugh fest. Even the liner notes brought down the house. I didn't have the drag gene to develop Helsinka, but a bit of the stage bug bit me again, and I plotted something substantial to debut on my 40th birthday.
My tightly-wound father, who'd already had two heart surgeries, wisely decided to send me to deal with his mother, my beloved & tyrannical Baba, who at age 90 and losing her eyesight needed to be moved from her 10th floor ghetto apt. to the Tolstoy Farm, a foundation for aging Russians my father cleverly found as the solution to this long-distance problem. With her feeble sister, Vera, dead---these three were my last living relations. There was little question Baba could no longer care for herself (nor dwell in a high-rise with a frequently malfunctioning elevator). I was paid off and arrived in a steamy August to pack her five rooms of life into one and suffer her unabashed hysteria at being packed off to the Farm; fighting and condemning me the entire week, between bouts of tears and horrifying episodes of incontinence--for which I had no choice but to clean up. It was one of the worst weeks of both our lives, but the ultimate destination was a happy coda. As the Cohan song goes: only 45 minutes from Broadway, The Tolstoy Farm was an upstate sanctuary for dying Russians, set up by the great author's daughter. It couldn't have been a more fitting resting place for Baba. She was still glaring at me when I left her in their capable hands, but when I returned the following summer, she, who had long maintained her imperial, tyrranical power had softened into a pussycat. Her mind was half gone by then, but it was nice to see her inner nature was so loving, so mellow. We sat out in the garden in the summer humidity, and she nodded off so deeply that for more than a few minutes I believed that she had actually expired. But she came to and after a cafeteria lunch I bid her goodbye for the final time., then drove back to NY in the tail end of a hurricane. It seemed appropriate. When she died four years later, Father had no adversary to prevent him from attending to the matter on his own. It was typical of him not to consider that it might have meant something to me to go as well. But I was yet poverty's plaything and the invitation wasn't offered. Father had his own complicated feelings to sort thru, but I wasn't really sad. She was 95 after all. She died the same day as Mary Wickes. The two of them would've made great companions.
My trips to New York shrunk to the two midsummer ones related above; when I caught but a handful of Bway offerings: Lettice & Lovage, Prelude to a Kiss, Tru and Grand Hotel in '90; The Will Rogers Follies, The Secret Garden and Six Degrees of Separation in '91. But LA was, if not Bway, as close to it production-wise for such as Les Miz, Phantom, City of Angels, Falsettos and Jerome Robbins' Broadway--which had something none of the others had, that old Golden Age magic; and the memory of which is still with me; if for nothing else--and there was much, much more--for the riotous Mack Sennett ballet from High Button Shoes. But these were rare occasions, my default mode was exploiting the age of VHS, which gave me an accessible (not to mention affordable) film history education, in a multi-year study of movies from the silents to the '70s--when I was living & breathing them. It also put in perspective the relative flatness of cinema at the time--the same time I was trying so hard to become a part of.
By the early '90s my interest in pop music was seriously on the wane (Isn't that what happens to most people entering their 40s?) For over two decades my sonic explorations had broadened beyond Bway to include rock, jazz, punk, new wave, reggae, classical and all kinds of world beats. But somehow my interest in old favorites like Elvis Costello evaporated. I wasn't interested in Madonna, or Michael Jackson or Prince, but Tom Waits, Laurie Anderson, Paul Simon and David Byrne still held sway. And if my Bway play-list had never really stopped, a longtime void was rectified in the early '90s with a slew of Capitol Records reissues from their vast pop vocalist catalog (from the '40s to the '60s), in brightly packaged collections of the great Bway songwriters: "Capitol Sings. . . Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Rodgers & Hart, Porter, Gershwin, Loesser," etc.
I feasted on each one as they came out, renewing my love (in a fresh and different context--I hadn't really dug very deeply into pre-rock pop vocalists) for the great melodic genius that was our national songbook. Now I was in thrall with Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Mercer, Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, Nancy Wilson, Chet Baker, Louis Prima &
Keely Smith. The latter most of all, for the purity of her mid-Atlantic tone; the female equivalent of Sinatra. I wondered what became of her? And then, soon she resurfaced in Vegas, where I thrilled to her anew.
Later still, I would find her my neighbor in Palm Springs.
After 18 months at Disney I quit at the end of July '92, and subsisted on reading scripts and writing coverage for Randy at $50 a pop. Tho the scripts were mainly dreck it was good experience being on the other side of looking at random work--and having to be fair about other's blood & sweat. Before I left Disney, I took my vacation days to attend another men's retreat at the Russian River in Northern California. New friends resulted (from Vancouver, Arizona, NY) and one hot summer romance with a just out married man (with three boys), who also happened to be a flower magnate. He lived in Orange County in his new bachelor duplex, and took me to SF for a drunken spree and to La Quinta in the blaze of August for an insanely erotic weekend in a hospitality suite with an enormous pool that invited much dancing. Driving back thru Palm Springs in his Jaguar, the warm desert air grazing my bare feet on his dash, Sinatra singing Cole Porter is a bit of Rahadlakum I shall always remember.
We broke apart in pieces, amazingly, thru the whole two-nights watching Tony Kushner's Angels in America at the Taper (prior to its, some-say inferior, Bway incarnation). Even so the play wouldn't/couldn't be ignored, it was dense, ravishing & electrifying. Perhaps I needed to return to my roots in theater again. Writing this good wasn't happening much in Hlwd at the time.
True to my previous birthday vow, I finally wrote my solo piece, which I convinced myself was within my performance grasp by following the format of Spaulding Gray--a monologue from a desk, with video and soundtrack. The Nikita Khruschev Songbook was my long gestating memory play about being nine years-old in 1962;
the year I came alive with musical comedy and the larger world as a glamorous setting; in collision with the drama of my parents; unmasked as (gulp!) Russians in my innocent American eyes, while the Cuban Missile Crisis looms in the background. My seminal year. My favorite year.
I worked hard on the script, on the crisply edited soundtrack, on video clips painfully put together on primitive VHS machines; on everything but my performance. My mid-December birthday didn't seem the best time to draw an audience; so I chose New Year's Day and rented a black-box theater on La Cienga. Laura volunteered to run sound and a friend from Arizona worked the video. We barely had a tech rehearsal and the doors opened, bringing seventy people--friends and friends who brought friends--to make for a nice, forgiving house. Technically the show was rough, and I certainly wasn't polished by any means, but few really cared and TNKS was very warmly received. I thought it was the start of something I could develop as a real performance piece, and later fleshed out as a screenplay. Lisa Loomer still tells me it's the story of mine she liked best.
Yet, somehow I never followed up on it.
Perhaps, subconsciously, I felt I got all that I needed from the experience. Having always been mostly anonymous among strangers, it was surprising how revealing myself made me more approachable. Of course I might as well have been waving a red flag in front of Larry Rubinstein. Brought to the show by one of my acquaintances, later at our house party (to which half the audience repaired) Larry related so strongly to my musical comedy childhood that we became instant comrades for life. Barely eight when his parents first took him to Bway--for Paint Your Wagon--but used to Radio City stage shows, Larry expected a movie afterward. Fittingly Lerner & Loewe was his gateway drug, as they were mine ten years later with MFL. While my knowledge of Bway was more encyclopedic, Larry's was more experiential. Growing up across the Hudson, he saw so many Golden Age shows I had only imagined thru OCRs. Up to then I had no serious musical compatriot, only friends who shared a more casual interest--none of whom were shaped by their own youthful obsession with Bway. In that way, Larry got me as no one else had. Whatsmore he had seriously good sense and taste (which means, of course, much like mine). But he was no one-trick pony; Larry's interests were as varied as mine, only fifty times more so; and his collection of friends (and lovers) nearly endless. And yet our bond was such that I slipped into his inner circle. Curiously, tho he was as creative as I, he never pursued a career in the Arts, but went from advertising to cafe owner, to computers, to corporate--living a solid and solvent bachelor life, enjoying a neverending cultural plate few of us could afford or find time for. Larry's secret, aside from rarely sleeping, is an openess to try anything, a FOMO that's nearly pathological, an inability to say no. I, on the other hand, say no to many things--age having made me unwilling to chance a mediocre experience over one I know would be fulfilling--which is usually in my own little corner, in my own little room. Likewise a Sagittarian, nine years my senior, Larry would mentor me thru tough choices and hard times ahead.
Years later my LA-bred, Jewish boss would get enraptured with South Africa, and build not just his own house somewhere way out in the bush, but an entire housing complex in a nearby village as well. Many others exalt its charms, but I remain unmoved; wild kingdom encounters with zebras, giraffes and the like have bored me to tears at safari parks; nor am I drawn to large cities where visible scars of white privilege and black oppression still fester. No, South Africa held little allure in my imagination, little spark to my curiosity; which explains my negligence of both the Bway and film versions of Sarafina! In theory if anything could sell me an unfamiliar, exotic and foreign milieu, it would be a musical. This is not that musical.
Next Up: Evita