Editor's Desk

Staged Reading

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Keeping it Local, Broadway, Arts Journalism, New York City, Theater) Permanent link

There's something about a long career on Broadway that makes lots of people think that their experiences are worth putting down in book form; over the years, I've known rehearsal pianists, dressers, chorus boys and stage hands who were busily scribbling their memoirs, most of which never saw the light of day. Now, one of Broadway's respected press agents, SUSAN L. SCHULMAN, has succumbed to the temptation. The result, Backstage Pass to Broadway: True Tales from a Theatre Press Agent, has just been published by Heliotrope Books. In Schulman's case, her efforts have been worth it; she's written a funny, sometimes shocking book about the things she's seen on Broadway for the past forty-plus years. (She got her feet wet in 1970 with Applause, starring the famously dyspeptic LAUREN BACALL, something that probably would have had most fledgling press agents applying for the night shift at Howard Johnson's.) Schulman is admittedly star-struck; there's a gosh-gee-whiz quality to many of her anecdotes, but her book is best when she's chronicling bad behavior: DAVID MERRICK's young wife NATALIE, LESLEY ANNE WARREN and JOHN DEXTER come off worst. If only most people who work in the opera industry were half this candid about their experiences, my job would be a lot more fun. 

BRIAN KELLOW

Striking a Pose

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances, Keeping it Local, Broadway, Cabaret) Permanent link

For a while, during her club act at 54 Below on January 24, Marin Mazzie looked like she might spend the evening circling without landing. She opened with a remembrance of her Illinois childhood, giving us a snapshot of a typical Saturday evening when her parents, cocktails at the ready, danced in front of the hi-fi to classic romantic ballads of the period such as "Tenderly." During this part of the evening, Mazzie seemed oddly "posed" and removed from the audience; she seemed to be in on a joke that she wasn't going to share with us, and it was hard to get a handle on where we might be heading. 

Fortunately, things picked up once she began to sing Top-40 hits from her own growing-up years. With excellent support from a band headed by her musical director Joseph Thalken, Mazzie gave killer renditions of schlocky '70s numbers such as the Partridge Family's "I Think I Love You," the Barbra Streisand–Paul Williams Gibson greeting-card romance "Evergreen" and Barry Manilow's "When Will I Hold You Again?" which she managed to make us believe is a pretty terrific song. Just as she was reaching an excellent performance peak, the evening seemed to end rather abruptly, leaving the audience feeling just slightly undernourished.

Mazzie is one of the most exciting singing actresses on the Broadway scene, and I'm always a little frustrated that, apart from Passion, she hasn't originated a show that was really worthy of her. (Her replacement-cast performance in Next to Normal, opposite her talented husband Jason Daniely, was one of the most electrifying turns I've seen in years.) Now I'd like to see her do a full-scale cabaret show on the order of those offered by the great Marilyn Maye — something that really lets us know who she is. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

Free to Be

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances, Listening, Keeping it Local, New York City, Theater) Permanent link

Why is it so difficult for some singers simply to be themselves onstage? It's fascinating how quickly we can pick up on a singer's discomfort. A poorly chosen program, a determination to stand back from the emotional content of the music, a tendency to joke around too much onstage, can all become a kind of distracting armor that prevents performers from fully showing themselves to us. Throughout her performing career, and in the many master classes she has taught around the country, Barbara Cook has advocated throwing off that armor. On October 18, when Carnegie Hall presented her in an eighty-fifth birthday concert, she demonstrated a lifetime of lessons learned. Her music director/pianists were Ted Rosenthal and Lee Musiker, and the show was scripted by David Thompson, produced by Jeff Berger and directed by Daniel Kutner. 

Cook has made many appearances at Carnegie over the years — the first being in 1961, with Leonard Bernstein. "Here I am again," she said when she padded onstage. "Blinked my eye — and eighty-five!" She then launched into a highly satisfying program, skipping some of her famous theater hits ("Vanilla Ice Cream," from She Loves Me, "They Were You," from The Fantasticks, "It's Not Where You Start," from Seesaw) in favor of a well-chosen collection of pop and jazz standards. In places, Cook's voice sounded drier than it has on past occasions, and now and then, from her seated position, she couldn't quite muster the support for an isolated high note, so that her vibrato widened in ways we aren't used to hearing. But for the most part she was in excellent voice, nailing stunning high notes in "Georgia on My Mind" and "When Sunny Gets Blue" and making a heartrending lament out of "Bye Bye Blackbird." There were a few miscalculations: Dan Hicks's country-flavored "list" song, "I Don't Want Love," is better suited to a performer who uses bolder, cruder strokes, and Musiker's arrangement of "I've Got You Under My Skin" undulated so much that the song itself got lost. But the almost-forgotten '30s ballad "If I Love Again" was pure, heartfelt magic, and "The Nearness of You" and "Makin' Whoopee" were all but flawless. At the concert's end, some surprise guest stars — John Pizzarelli, Jessica Molaskey, Sheldon Harnick, Susan Graham and Josh Groban — showed up to boost the birthday celebration by each doing a turn; the high point was Groban's cleanly sung performance of Stephen Sondheim's "Not While I'm Around." 

But it wasn't as much an evening about music-making or vocalizing as it was about honesty. Clearly, it took Cook many years to reach the point of exhibiting such ease onstage, so we shouldn't insult her by describing her art as "effortless." But it is a rare pleasure to listen to an artist who never forgets that her biggest job up there onstage is just letting us know who she is. spacer 

Diddling While Rome Burns

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Cinema, Crossover) Permanent link

For a filmmaker who has repeatedly taken as his subject the jumbled, chaotic world of artists, Woody Allen has amazingly little of any freshness or depth to say about the creative life. I started to get nervous back in 1978, when he unveiled Interiors, his drama about a New York family of people obsessed with achieving creative perfection and always feeling that they fall short of it. The dialogue seemed so stilted and self-conscious that at times I thought Allen was offering up a parody of Bergmanesque angst. Since then, with the exception of 1986's Hannah and Her Sisters, which revealed some rather funny and touching truths about another New York family of artists, he's been spinning his wheels. The dramatic situations he sets up have a peculiarly artificial scent about them, like one of those model apartments where you can smell the newness of the carpeting and furniture. He deals in types and clichéd situations, and no matter how cleverly certain scenes are brought off, everything feels too worked out and predictable. (This was true to an extent even in Hannah and Her Sisters; the only scene that genuinely surprised me was the one in which Maureen O'Sullivan poured out her drunken resentment of her husband, played by Lloyd Nolan.) 

I was going to skip Allen's new film, To Rome with Love. I didn't, for the simple reason that I was drawn by the opera elements in the plot. Allen plays Jerry, an avant-garde stage director who has been reviled for tampering with the classics. (One of his famous productions is a Rigoletto with everyone dressed as white mice — a detail that, like practically everything else in the film, isn't nearly as funny as it's meant to be). Jerry and his wife, Phyllis (Judy Davis), travel to Rome to meet the Italian man their daughter plans to marry. The boy's father is an undertaker named Giancarlo (played by tenor Fabio Armiliato). When Giancarlo steps into the shower and begins singing, Jerry, standing outside in the hallway, hears evidence of a remarkable voice, and Jerry hectors him to turn pro. The trouble is that Giancarlo can't sing well except when he's in the shower: when Jerry organizes an audition for him in front of a group of top-flight opera managers, Giancarlo blows it completely. Jerry comes up with a solution: recitals and stage productions will be engineered so that he can sing while showering. The gag is mildly amusing the first time but less so in its many repetitions. And really, the whole conceit of the talented amateur being terrified to perform in the professional arena is old-hat. (Remember Marilyn Horne guesting on TV's The Odd Couple, as the opera singer who couldn't open her mouth unless her pal Oscar, played by Jack Klugman, was in the room?) Allen skips lightly over the opera material as if pleased just to show us another facet of his cultural fluency; he never really gets into it at all — never does anything truly inventive with it. 

The main raisons d'être for To Rome with Love are Darius Khondji's lovely, terra-cotta-tinged scenes of Rome, the funny individual moments contributed by Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni and Judy Davis and the film's biggest surprise — the relaxed, appealing screen presence of Fabio Armiliato. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

The Distancing Effect

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances, Listening) Permanent link

When the 2012 Grammy Award nominations were announced recently, Ian Bostridge's name was prominent on the list — in the category of Best Classical Vocal Solo, for his EMI CD Three Baroque Tenors. It's Bostridge's twelfth Grammy nomination, and he's won twice before — a remarkable achievement for an artist who spends most of his artistic life quite outside the classical-music mainstream.

I heard Bostridge most recently on November 28, when he appeared in recital at Carnegie Hall accompanied at the piano by composer Thomas Adès. It was a strange — also strangely memorable — evening that I'm still puzzling over to some extent. Bostridge has always spiked his recitals with peculiar poses and lurches about the stage that often make it difficult to determine exactly what his specific motivation might be. He did so again at the Carnegie Hall performance, and he was matched moment by moment by Adès, who attacked the keyboard almost ferociously at times, punching out individual notes rather than sculpting phrases. One odd detail about Adès's playing: he often picked up one hand from the keyboard and stared at it momentarily, as if he was surprised that it had shown up for the performance. The overall effect was that the music sometimes seemed pulled instead of merely allowed to take shape. This unnerved me most of all during their performance of Schumann's Dichterliebe which has to go down as one of the most eccentric performances of this cycle I've ever heard. The entire recital was built around the theme of loss and personal isolation, so many of their choices made sense dramatically. Yet underneath it all, I had a strong feeling — which I'm encountering in performance more and more these days — that the artists onstage weren't particularly interested in bringing the audience into the experience of portraying alienation. For me, the high point was Dowland's magnificent "In Darkness Let Me Dwell." I couldn't help but wish that more of the recital had managed to be so chillingly desolate and illuminating at the same time. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

Director's Cut

(News, Observations, Brian Kellow, Arts Journalism, New York City Opera) Permanent link

It's refreshing that New York City Opera has been leading arts coverage recently. I only wish it were for different reasons. At a press conference on July 12, NYCO's artistic and general director George Steel said, in response to a question from The New York Times's Daniel Wakin, that the company had no plans to dispense with the services of music director George Manahan. Members of the press corps who are inclined toward skepticism may have noted that Steel seemed peculiarly vague about how many months Manahan had to run on his contract. 

Only three weeks later, the company announced that the position of music director was being eliminated. I have commented in other sections of OPERA NEWS on Steel's lack of candor in certain areas, and I'd prefer not to return to the subject here. What troubles me is this: what kind of future does NYCO have without a music director in place? One very important thing that music directors do is to block ham-handed artistic decisions from being put into play. If music directors are any good, they examine the artistic health and future of the opera company as a whole entity. (Obviously, guest conductors don't necessarily bring this concern to the table; often, they are focused on maximizing their isolated appearances at the opera houses, their eye very much on their own future.) An opera-house orchestra usually absorbs — for better or worse — the artistic personality of its music director. Without a single person at the helm, an orchestra runs the risk of sounding like a pack of musicians on a freelance gig. If all this isn't a compelling argument for the existence of a music director, what about this one (since money seems to dominate conversation in the opera world these days)? Music directors come armed with their own network of major donors. I know that New York City Opera is dealing with punishing financial realities, and I feel for the company. But for Steel and the board to treat this central position as if it were a mere vestige seems more than foolhardy. It seems maddeningly self-defeating. spacer

BRIAN KELLOW

Listen to the Music

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Listening, Criticism, Keeping it Local, New York City) Permanent link
Have you noticed that so many conversations in the world of opera now focus on one general area — audience outreach and product access? Whenever I speak with opera-company directors, in particular, they say surprisingly little about the quality of what is being put onstage; instead, they mostly want to talk about how they will continue, in these challenging times, to put bodies in the seats. More to the point, they want to discuss how they will continue to put young bodies in the seats. Recently, I was on the phone with an executive at a major West Coast opera company. I wanted to ask her about the company's programming thrust for the coming season. Before I knew it, she was performing a lengthy commercial for her efforts to involve all of the local comic-book artists in the opera scene, and how such initiatives were vital to bringing in the opera newbies. By the time I hung up, exhausted, I had forgotten why I'd called her in the first place.

I support this push for new audiences in opera, but I think I may be coming at it from a slightly different angle. Implicit in all of the arguments about the need to lower the median age is the suggestion that all of those older people currently filing into the theater are engaged, tuned in, fully responsive to what's happening onstage — and that it's crucial to get younger audiences to function in the same way.

I would hope we could get the new audiences, wherever they may come from, to do much better than that. I do not believe for one second that most of the senior citizens I often find myself surrounded by in New York really have a profound connection to the music that the younger generations will have trouble matching. I think many older people, in New York especially, were brought up with the idea that attending live performances was crucial to being culturally well-rounded. They may be paying to fill the seats, all right. But I’m not sure they're filling them in a meaningful way. 

One recent example, among many: in mid-June, I attended a concert of the New York Philharmonic, with Ludovic Morlot conducting. On the first half, the orchestra played the lovely Prelude to Khovanshchina, followed by William Walton's Violin Concerto, impressively performed by the wonderful Gil Shaham. The woman in front of me dozed off as soon as the Mussorgsky began. The man next to her waited until the Walton to start bagging his Zs, and he came to only when the audience broke into sustained applause at the end of the entire concerto. Behind me, a man wrestled with his hearing device, pitched at air-raid level. My favorite, though, was the lady to my left, who, before the music started, bitched endlessly at her husband about the jacket he was wearing. Later, she wondered aloud why it took so long to rearrange the stage for the Walton. Throughout the first half, she restlessly leafed through her large-print program notes without once looking up at the stage. In the middle of the concerto's exciting final movement, she said, to no one in particular, "You’d at least think the program could mention that Gil Shaham comes from Israel." What could any of these people really have taken away from the evening other than a hefty Visa bill for dinner and a parking garage?

As a journalist, I prize evenings such as this. It’s wonderful to be able to look around and eavesdrop on the people sitting near you, because you can learn a great deal about where we’re heading culturally. But my greatest hope for the succeeding generations of ticket holders is that they'll be more tuned in than those who came before them. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW


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Current Issue: January 2015 — VOL. 79, NO. 6