Thursday, July 13, 2017

A Couple Of White Assassins Sitting Around Talking (ASSASSINS, 2004)

May, 2004

In "The Producers," two showmen put on a razz-ma-tazzy musical based on the most tasteless, repulsive idea they can find; audiences roll in the aisles, find it delightful and the show becomes a hit. Mel Brooks should sue for a percentage of "Assassins."

"Assassins'" authors Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman were on the cutting edge of concept musical theatre in 1976, with "Pacific Overtures," a magnificent tableau depicting the effect of Western imperialism on Japan's ancient culture in the nineteenth century. This was just before the British revue "Side By Side By Sondheim" catapulted Sondheim from an idiosyncratic, chameleonesque virtuoso of the musical theatre, appealing to epicurean sophisticates, into a household name. Sondheim -- bristling at the humiliation of popular acceptance as an entertainment commodity -- has done his best to paint himself further into dark corners of arcanity ever since, vainly trying to recapture the audience alienation on which he clearly thrives. And now they're even loving "Assassins" -- the poor guy just can't win. He should sue Mel Brooks for a percentage of "The Producers."

Sondheim has always been highly dependent on two key collaborators (librettist and director) for his successes (the greatest of which, for my money, are the Hugh Wheeler collaborations "A Little Night Music" and "Sweeney Todd," with George Furth's "Company" trailing in third). The virtuosity and willful bizarreness of Sondheim's musical toolkit can't mask the naiveté of his show's themes and subjects, of varying degrees of self-evidence: It's nice to have a mate ("Company"); mid-20th-century romance was an illusion ("Follies"); love makes us fools ("Night Music"); Big Bad America pushed Japan around ("Pacific Overtures"); revenge will drive you nuts ("Sweeney Todd"); youthful optimism doesn't last ("Merrily We Roll Along"); art isn't easy ("Sunday In The Park With George"); fairy tales are, well, fairy tales ("Into The Woods"); love hurts ("Passion"). Simple themes dominate musical theatre, and that's certainly no disgrace -- but Sondheim's progressive retreat deeper into his peculiar comfort zone of musical and lyrical arcanity throws the simple themes into relief, and makes his idiosyncratic twisting and turning frequently seem all the more unnecessary and unjustified by the subject at hand, the popular medium in which Sondheim has chosen to express himself, and the audience to whom he has increasingly presumed to philosophize using his characters as mouthpieces.

Enter the concept director! It is no accident that a free-spirited random-theatre-generator like Hal Prince was the ideal Sondheim visionary -- the show's about this, so let's have that! The show's about that, so let's have this! Exactly the kind of visual and structural shakeup needed by both the musical theatre, on the verge of meltdown by 1970, and Sondheim, overflowing with ferocious virtuosity. So what happened? My theory: the implosion of the big concept musical, a potent new form of Broadway and a magnificent novelty that began in the restless 1960's and had run through its bag of tricks by 1975 (with a grand finale in the form of "A Chorus Line," the ultimate concept musical folding in on its own art form).

"Merrily We Roll Along," that notorious disaster that revisionists insist was better than it was, gave us (at least many of us who actually saw it) three hours of gory evidence of the limitations, oppressive excesses and ultimate futility of throwing all other musical theatre considerations on the shrine of Concept and lighting a match. You don't even get a good fire -- just a graven image of a highly nude Emperor reminding one of Concept's past glory, melting amidst the myriad elements and potential of musical theatre into a self-conscious, pretentious goo.

And thus to "Assassins."

For all the hails, cheers, and awards, haven't we seen all of this before -- many times over? So a bunch of presidential assassins wander around the stage as contestants in a carnival Shooting Gallery (shooting, get it?), competing for some kind of metaphorical Prize. Life is a Shooting Gallery, old chum. Entertainment-metaphor shows have become as formulaic as an Andy Hardy musical. Hal Prince gave us one of the first, in "Cabaret" (which was largely a happy accident, due to the scenery requiring some in-one numbers out of town, and the presence of the cabaret M.C. in the cast, who was originally hired to do a brief turn and get lost). So life Is a cabaret. Life is also a vaudeville ("Chicago," Fosse's far superior extrapolation of the "Cabaret" drill); life is a burlesque house (Prince's "Grind"); life is a sideshow ("Side Show," the exploitative, sensationalistic musical decrying exploitation and sensationalism); life is an audition ("A Chorus Line"); life is a Ziegfeld show ("Will Rogers Follies") and so on.

"Assassins" even gives us a stand-in for "Cabaret's" M.C. -- the Shooting Gallery's Proprietor, a sneering, sniggering, mustache-twirling bad 'un, as posed by the vastly overqualified Marc Kudisch. "Cabaret's" M.C. luridly seduced his customers to enter his world and lose their frustrations in an ironic opening number ("so life is disappointing? Forget it!"). "Assassins'" M.C., on the other hand, luridly seduces his customers to enter his world and lose their frustrations in an ironic opening number ("Life's not as bad as it seems!" goes the lyric -- Kander & Ebb should join Mel Brooks' lawsuit). The Proprietor sings, "Hey pal, feelin' blue? C'mere and kill a president!" This blunt, ironic non-sequitur is meant to shock and awe, but the tired "life is a carnival" convention makes the intended irony seem like, to quote Dorothy Fields, yesterday's mashed potatoes. "Watch it, no violence!" the Proprietor admonishes, a lyric more leaden than ironic.

And therein lies the essential problem with "Assassins" (and also the reason for its apparent success). The show has been crammed into a familiar Concept, a well-tested device for delivering irony; and two solid hours of winking irony is 110 minutes too long. It reminds me of my days consorting with the inmates of the Harvard Lampoon, who felt that any remark at the dinner table, such as "pass the pepper," could be rendered hilarious and significant if issued with an ironic tilt of the eyebrow.

Fosse and Ebb's "Chicago" was the last word in mordant irony, depicting its murderers as fame-hungry bottom-feeders, fighting the system for a piece of the American pie. "Assassins" has been hailed as a breakthrough, depicting its murderers as fame-hungry bottom-feeders, fighting the system for a piece of the American pie.

And why should Presidential assassins be thrown together in a hash of random acting, musical, and scene styles for two hours in the first place? To quote my tenth-grade English teacher, "what's the so-what?" To show their similarities? (history-bending generalities abound in pursuit of this dubious objective dictated by The Concept); to show their differences? (few are theatrically exploited for our edification, since they contradict The Concept); to humanize the assassins? (camp and melodrama prevail); to make vague claims that Big Bad America has some unique formula that breeds assassins? This is historical rubbish, as even a cursory glance at European or Russian history reveals (check out Boris Gudonov and Russia's Time Of Troubles, or the regular news from Nepal); "Follies" and "Chicago" and Fosse's "Star 80" (to name a few) already contrasted America's optimistic ideals with its realities, and this old irony is depicted on the front page of any daily newspaper lately. It is "Assassins'" intellectual abdication and disingenuousness that distinguish the show as a jaw-dropping one-of-a-kind event, even more than its shameless Broadway grave-robbing, its inartful mash of styles, and its intrinsic tastelessness.

Now let's peek under the hood and see what everyone's raving about. There's a minimal score of about nine songs -- this won't take long.

"Everyone's got the right to be happy!" sings the cast in no fewer than four separate choruses in the opener -- a rather arbitrary ironic conceit imposed by Concept, a trivial, tuneful riff on the "pursuit of happiness" clause of the Founding Fathers. "Free country!" the assassins sing repeatedly on Sondheim's octave motif -- a remarkably naive phrase, since even the least sophisticated Broadway tourist in the audience knows that "pursuit of happiness" doesn't guarantee its achievement, and a "free country" has by consensus precluded shooting people. So from the git-go, we're reduced to spectators watching a carnival of nut-cases -- a far less interesting activity than seeing "Sweeney Todd," for instance, in which the protagonist starts out sane and takes us on his harrowing journey to looney-land.

There follows a solid ten minute scena conservatively titled "The Ballad Of Booth." The good news is that Booth is portrayed by Michael Cerveris, who gives the single solid-gold, legitimate, grounded, exquisitely sung and acted performance of the evening. The bad news is that he is introduced by yet another M.C. (this piece is crawling with commentary), called The Balladeer, played by a mellow all-American of average voice and uncertain point of view -- picture Dennis The Menace after dropping out of college, now wandering around singing about Presidential assassins. Sondheim, whose pastiches normally improve on their source styles, provides the Balladeer with all-too accurate versions of various trivial folk tunes and lyrics to sing: "Every now and then the country goes a little wrong" (like a Civil War and Lincoln's assassination? See Two Hours Of Irony, above). The Balladeer's suggestion that Booth killed Lincoln because of frustration over his own "bad reviews" as an actor got titters the first time -- but not the second time; not even the third time, particularly forecast by the rhymes "shoes" and "booze." Cerveris makes the best of some truly unfortunate lines, as Sondheim reduces Booth to a one-dimensional wretch singing imprecations: "He was a bloody tyrant!" "Damn you Lincoln, you righteous whore!" (I cringed at that one) -- "The country is not what it was" -- "Damn my soul if you must!" Far from humanizing the man, the writers settle for a many-page, one-note pre-suicide rant, summed up by the amiable Balladeer: "What he was was off his head." That's been made more than clear -- but what a lost opportunity for a three-dimensional portrayal of a potentially fascinating individual (to say nothing of the conspiracy, of which several were hanged; and there's the moral dilemma of Dr. Mudd -- but none of that would have fit into The Concept). And even the poor Balladeer is forced to sum up the entire segment with the following lamentable anticlimax: "Guns don't right the wrongs, but soon the country's back where it belongs, still in all, damn you, Booth!"

"How I Saved Roosevelt" is a retread of one of Sondheim's most brilliant pieces, "Someone In A Tree" from "Pacific Overtures," in which history is defined as a consensus of its witnesses, each contributing their fragmentary point of view. "Roosevelt" is sabotaged by its fast 6/8 tempo and incomprehensible delivery by various chorus members; all we get from it is that someone tried and failed to shoot Roosevelt, which we knew, while the chorus leaves us with the obvious remark: "We'd have been left bereft of FDR." I've always had a theory that twisted, dissonant wrong-note rags like Zangara's song are the easiest thing to write (communicative logic is so much harder), and raving one-note nut-job characters like Zangara are likewise easy to construct. How much more interesting it might have been to address the attempted right-wing coup-d'état averted during Roosevelt's tenure (he was considered threateningly socialist by some, but that didn't interest the authors, and it wouldn't have fit in the Concept.) Instead they settle for giving us the nut-job, and fry him in the electric chair (we've had Broadway musical executions before, in "Chicago," but more on that below).

I should add in here that I am a great fan of orchestras residing in the orchestra pit where they belong ("Chicago" being one exception). Many around me at "Assassins" vented frustration similar to mine that the lyrics were unintelligible, drowned out by the orchestra occupying the boxes, with Mr. Gemigniani slumped on a stool, beating time directly into the audience's distracted faces. More Concept, I guess; perhaps an orchestra in the lobby will be the next experiment. It's different -- "but it doesn't mean anything!" (to quote Oscar Hammerstein II). And it's damned impractical and annoying not to hear Sondheim lyrics, even these. Call me incorrigibly retro, but I'm also a fan of actors leaving the stage when they're no longer in the scene; this Brechtian lounging-about of cast-members has become another hackneyed directorial staple of the Concept-musical genre (and I was as annoyed by it in the "Chicago" revival as I was in "Marie Christine" and "Assassins").

"The Gun Song" is run-of-the-mill socialist stuff about the Industrial Revolution and the labor of the masses, combined with a cute little barbershop ditty about how interesting it is that pulling a trigger "can change the world" (an idea I found self-evident from the opening number, even from the title of the show on the marquis). I may have been jaundiced by the Industrial Revolution setting of "Sweeney Todd," and by the stoker's song in "Titanic" which covered the same labor-of-the-lower-classes ground (I know, "Assassins" was written first, but I admired more the social class depictions that drove "Titanic" in plot and theme).

The impeccable Anne Nathan, one of the best things about "Thoroughly Modern Millie," does what she can with her scene with McKinley's killer Czolgosz, which features a joke about Buffalo (the one in a "A Chorus Line" should have been the last word in that genre of humor) and an oft-repeated schtick where she looks at her watch and doesn't have time to canoodle with the guy (poor Emma Goldman has now gotten short shrift in both "Ragtime" and "Assassins"). The song "Czolgosz" disappoints in several ways, both surprising and otherwise. Sondheim is well-known for his fascination with proper names, going all the way back to "West Side Story's" brilliant "Maria." I tend to consider proper names as filler, a substitute for communicative substance in a lyric (much as I love "Company," I'm not a fan of "a Jenny-ish Joanne," and "Johanna" from "Sweeney Todd" is the ultimate waste of three syllables in what should have been a powerful love song). So the repetition of the name "Czolgosz" in another folk song pastiche is merely a Sondheim trademark, albeit disappointing. But the lyric "some men have everything and some have none" is truly extraordinary for one of the greatest lyricists in Broadway history; again, dead-on for the folk song Concept of the score, but a woefully simplistic formula replacing what might have been a unique characterization. But this is "Assassins'" modus operandi -- to reduce the very objects of the authors' fascination into formulas and generics.

I am happy to announce that one song stands out dramatically and musically: "Unworthy Of Your Love." In a glimmer of his former virtuosity, Sondheim doesn't merely adopt the folk/pop genre but transcends it, much as he did with his "Follies" pastiches. And dramatically he ties Hinkley's and Fromme's assassination attempts to psychology and a common bond of motivation -- a welcome relief from the stereotypical, alienated outcasts muttering about America that populate the rest of the piece. Even the oft-repeated proper names "Jodie" and "Charlie" in the lyric couldn't sink this one. (I'm reminded of Ann Morrison's hilarious parody of "Why Can't It Be Like It Was, Charlie," from "Merrily We Roll Along," which I once saw her perform, with all those insistent "Charlie's" completely overtaking the lyric).

Alas, "The Ballad of Guiteau" is all about his name (mentioned nine times), with a rather hideous phrase (sung nine times) about Guiteau "going to the Lordy." Apparently this is what Guiteau actually wrote and read on the gallows, which proves only that presidential assassins do not Broadway lyricists make. The character is written and performed as two-dimensional camp: all we learn is that Guiteau was a religious fanatic and wrote a book (which the character waves at the audience persistently). In a tragically miscalibrated performance, the brilliant Denis O'Hare (presumably in a vacuum of direction and material) falls back on his flamboyantly gay, extravagantly lisping demeanor from his Tony-Award-winning performance in "Take Me Out," further distancing us from a credible characterization. This long and grotesque showbiz turn depicts Guiteau cakewalking up and down the gallows stairs, repeating his inane ditty over and over, with some mysterious stops and starts, and some minimal information about President Garfield thrown in by the ever-present Balladeer. For this number alone, the set designer practically filled the stage with a huge, crude lumber staircase that hulks over the evening (think of the Americana or graphics or stage levels and playing areas that could have filled this space). All this rib-nudging vaudeville culminates with a Guiteau doll being hung by the neck from the flies -- an echo of the stunning show-business hanging of the Hunyak in "Chicago" with which Bob Fosse had shocked audiences in 1975. As Hugh Jackman sings in a far more entertaining musical, "Everything old is new again."

Denis O'Hare is one of a number of superior talents who have been cast adrift by the haphazard writing and direction; observe Marc Kudisch, who cashes in his chips after the opening number and is thereafter seen draped here and there, ominously glowering over the proceedings (I didn't even know who this bald yellow-costumed guy was throughout the show, until I pieced it together from the program afterwards). I am unfamiliar with the talents of Mario Cantone, and regrettably remain so after seeing the shrill gay-stand-up-comic-style yelling he has been encouraged to issue as Sam Byck (I knew nothing of Sam Byck, and still don't -- just another ax-grinding nut job). The very fine Becky Baker, who did such a striking turn in "Titanic," and gives such reliably vivid performances on "Law And Order," is forced to camp it up as a kooky, giggly housewife shticking it up with her uncontrollable gun. The audience thought her accidental shooting of her dog, and her threat to shoot her whiny kid, were the height of hilarity; even Bob Fosse had a conscience, turning the audience's laughing and cheering of his fun-loving murderers into a moral caution -- the "Assassins" people merely attempt to incite lurid laughter for its own sake.

The show reaches its second-lowest point in its big chorus number, "Another National Anthem," during which an entire chorus in pretty costumes, doing collegiate choreography to a little march, suddenly appears from their dressing rooms, where a lot of card games are no doubt in progress heretofore. The assassins all repeat why they did their deed; the Balladeer sings some more surprisingly unenlightening and unchallenging lyrics ("You shed a little blood, and a lot of people shed a lot of tears"); and out come the merry villagers, doing step-touch to the lyric "It's the other national anthem saying, if you want to hear, it says, 'bullshit!'" -- six minutes of the same old hash they've been drumming at us all night about the malcontents and the disenfranchised feeling justified in shooting presidents.

But "Assassins'" eleven-minute Lee Harvey Oswald scene tells us the most about the authors' artistic ethics and purpose.

The authors announce in the program: "Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated JFK from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, Texas, November 22, 1963." The Dallas Police made this striking pronouncement on the evening of the assassination, it's true, after one of the shortest murder investigations in history. Unlike any other assassin the world has known, Oswald protested his innocence (no "Ballad of Booth" political rants for him), declared on national television that he was "a patsy" and called for legal representation, and the rest you know (to varying degrees). Obviously this isn't the forum for a discussion of this matter, but suffice it to say that even though "Assassins" preceded Oliver Stone's controversial movie, it didn't precede volumes and volumes of evidence suggesting an alternative explanation for the events of that day; and Stone's movie and the uproar it created inspired Congress to open up some of the files sealed for 75 years, and many more enlightening documents continue to come to light and inspire yet more books. But you know what I'm going to say. None of that fit the authors' Concept.

Now there are a minority of people who still believe the Warren Commission, and perhaps the authors of "Assassins" are genuinely among them. I hope so; I consider most of that minority innocently ill-read and unenlightened about historical and human realities, but not dishonest, which is the adjective I would have to use for those who might knowingly perpetuate one of history's greatest possible political hoaxes to suit their conceptual ends while purporting to illuminate rather than obfuscate the phenomenon of assassination. Interestingly, actor Neil Patrick Harris (Oswald) stated in an interview that of all the dozens of books on the subject, he exclusively read "Case Closed," by Gerald Posner, a notorious Warren Commission apologist whose book attempted to dampen the firestorm after the Stone film (and which inspired another dozen books refuting the Commission).

But let's say, just for argument's sake, that Lee Harvey Oswald really was the loser that the Warren Commission (and the show's authors) insist he was, despite the volumes of evidence to the contrary. What do our authors have to tell us, in their "Springtime For Oswald" number? In one of the most astounding theories yet thrown into the decades-long debate, "Assassins" posits that Oswald went to work that day in order to kill himself after a fight with his wife (and killed JFK instead). It's a mark of changing times that Stone's meticulously footnoted screenplay (all based on previously published research) created such a sensation, whereas today's docile Broadway audiences don't bat an eye at Weidman and Sondheim's theory.

Of course it's actually some kind of theatrical red herring (or bait) for Booth to enter the fantasia, followed by all his kooky, cranky, fun-loving fellow assassins, who come out of the wings to tempt Oswald to the final self-immolating deed ("Pippin," anyone? Bob Fosse is everywhere in this thing -- but he had already covered Manson in "Pippin," too, as well as the murder/fame/America matrix in "Chicago" and "Star 80"). And here's the crux of it: (Booth) "Fifty years from now they'll still be arguing about the grassy knoll, the Mafia, some Cuban crouched behind a stockade fence, but this is the real conspiracy " -- referring to the congregation of assassins egging on poor suicidal Oswald. Ahh. So they know what they're about, after all, Weidman and Sondheim: -- who cares who really killed Kennedy, who cares if the audience learns anything beyond the superficial about these other assassins, as long as we can mix it all up and concoct a coup-de-théatre -- prostitute Oswald and use him to generalize and explain them all? I sincerely hope that last image in this scene wasn't what I think it was; it was impossible to make it out from the balcony, but it looked as if it might be the Zapruder film being projected onto the Balladeer/Oswald's shirt, a final, appalling exploitation rendering all that preceded even more unsavory.

Sara Jane Moore says to Oswald: "Through you and your act, we are revived and given meaning." I have no doubt this was the authors' overall intent (although I question the value of the exercise). But none of these assassins are in fact revived or given meaning through this ragtag collection of quaint songs, go-fish acting styles, cheap laughs and grotesqueries; the assassins -- and their victims (largely uncharacterized and none honored, beyond the bland "Something Just Broke" number) -- are mere cannon fodder for Broadway pretentiousness, complete with flashy lighting effects, and the inevitable final fuck-you tableau of the assassins pulling their guns, approaching the audience and firing. Dissonant wrong note. Blackout. Cheers. Awards. Shoot me.

© May 2004 by Fred Barton, vastly looking forward to a revival of "A Little Night Music."

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Nora Mae Lyng: The Prince And The Showgirl

The Prince And The Showgirl

Notes on the death of Nora Mae Lyng, May 2017

Hello to the Kmeck family, and to all of Nora’s friends and family. I will be writing a long memoir of Nora’s and my epic Noel-and-Gertie Show Business Friendship For The Ages in the future, but until then, I offer my deepest, most painfully sad and heartfelt thoughts to wonderful George, wonderful Phoebe, wonderful Max and the entire Lyng family.

For many years, Nora has literally been two feet away from me at all times, since over this computer screen on my wall here hang the photographs of us “Forbidden Broadway” kids posing with our guests Ann Miller, Ethel Merman, George Burns, Mary Martin, and Carol Channing.

Nora Mae and I met one dark winter day in January, 1981, when I was the unhappy house pianist for Equity Library Theatre’s unfortunate production of “Anything Goes.” Nora’s big audition song, for her entire career, was a riotously hilarious rendition of “My Heart Belongs To Daddy.” She was beyond brilliant in a single verse and chorus of that song, for decades. I played the hell out of it for her, on that fateful day, instantly sensing I was playing for a comic and vocal genius. Her last comic surprise move in the last four bars instantly sent tears of hilarity streaming down my face; surprised by my trademark “big-orchestra” playing, she cocked her head, looked over at me at the piano, and said: “You sure put a burr under MY ass, kid!” and the room erupted in laughter. And in that instant was born the epic friendship of 36 years.

At the dance call for the same show, the choreographer went down the line, and asked each of the 30 last contestants in turn, “Any tricks? Any acrobatics?” As usual, the performers killed themselves trying to come up with some lamely impressive answer. “Somersaults.” “Handstands.” “Back Handsprings With a Reverse Sideways Flip.” Finally the choreographer got to Nora, asking, “Any tricks? Any acrobatics?” Nora took a very deep breath and after the most perfectly timed pause in the history of theatre, she succinctly replied: “Well, I had a baby.” The room absolutely exploded. I didn’t think I could love her any more after “My Heart Belongs To Daddy,” but from that “baby” line on, we were the fastest friends – and kindred spirits on that production, subversive and wicked with varying degrees of obviousness. Nothing makes for greater friends than two killer-dillers working under cover in a so-so show.

A few months later, she called me and begged me to play her club act of some kind. I HATED playing club acts – all that work, no money, ten people in the audience, no take-away, the whole bit. I told her I loved her but just couldn’t go there; no club acts for me. I was very grand at age 22; she had already dubbed me “The Austrian Prince” after my ancestry and grandiosity. Finally I very wearily said, “OK, Nora, why don’t you come over and SHOW ME THE MATERIAL.” (That was me at age 22.) If you know Nora, you know she doesn’t come over and SHOW YOU THE MATERIAL. But ten minutes later she was in my apartment with some friend of hers who had written her some special material, and she launched into a rendition of “One Of The Boys,” from the then-running “Woman Of The Year.” She pitched her voice into an absolutely perfect, scientifically architected caricature of Lauren Bacall, and began singing: “I’m one of the girls who sings like a boy; my voice is as low as the tunes I destroy.” I fell apart, and once again, tears of hilarity streamed down my face. She “showed me the material” alright, with her lyricist friend Gerard Alessandrini closely evaluating my pianistic feel for show music. And thus began my association with Nora and Gerard on a two-person-one-pianist revue called “Forbidden Broadway.” As for what happened next over the following 36 years, an epic tale of great intensity, ups, and downs – well, that’s for the book.  Nora, when I write us up, I’ll try and do you proud. Signed, with tears of despair and devastation streaming down my face, your Austrian Prince.