Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Moondog: The Viking of Sixth Avenue

More than 40 years later, I remember him: A guy in a salt-and-pepper beard down to his chest, holding a six-foot spear and dressed in a homemade Viking costume, with leather footwear and some kind of tight-fitting cloth or leather cap with two horns inserted. A blind guy. Sort of begging, sort of selling recordings of music he had written or made.

I was a college freshman too shy to say anything to him, so I stood at a little distance down Manhattan's Sixth Avenue and watched him talk to passers-by. Some of them ragged him, some showed respect, some bought a tape. Most just gawked, as I did.

By chance, I came across two LPs with his picture on the cover a couple of years later: "Moondog" and "Moondog 2," which have been reissued on one CD. Here's a sampling from the latter:

After I did some research via the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature (a lot more trouble in the pre-Internet era, I assure you), I dug up magazine articles that told me about Louis Hardin, a Midwesterner who had rubbed shoulders with everyone in New York from jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker to minimalist classical composer Philip Glass. He'd become a composer and poet as the self-dubbed Moondog, living on the street all day and crashing in a small apartment at night. By the time I learned who he was, he had emigrated to Europe forever.

I thought about my non-encounter while reading "Moondog: The Viking of 6th Avenue," the freshly reissued biography by Robert Scotto. The softcover version doesn't include the CD that came with the hardcover edition of 2007, but it links you to downloads of all the music. Glass, a multiple Oscar nominee who served as Moondog's reluctant landlord for one year, wrote the preface. (It's $22.95 from Process Books. See http://processmediainc.com/.)

That preface reveals an unsavory guy who threw fast-food trash around his room and expressed anti-Semitic attitudes while accepting the hospitality of his Jewish host. But Glass acknowledges Moondog's remarkable skill and daring as a musician, which comes out more clearly in Scotto's book. (It also includes his philosophic poetry, whose point I couldn't always untangle.)

We Americans have rarely understood what to do with odd members of our culture. If their voices don't seem immediately accessible, if they look or dress oddly (even as a form of self-definition, in Moondog's case), we write them off as loonies and close our ears. That's our loss: Though Moondog lived mostly on the street and dwelt always on the musical fringe, he had something to say.

Friday, July 26, 2013

You, too, can be a Medici (and cheaply, at the ASC)

Commissioning a symphony or a three-act play may not be on your bucket list, but don't let that stop you from being an old-fashioned patron of the arts. For a mere $400, you can have an artist create something personally for you -- in fact, nine artists.

Here's how the deal works: You buy a "share" in a new Arts & Science Council program called Community Supported Art. Shares go on sale Tuesday at 10 a.m. on the ASC website, and only 50 shares will be sold. (Get full details here: http://www.artsandscience.org/news-a-media/330-arts-a-science-council-announces-inaugural-season-of-community-supported-art-program.)

Nine local artists have been given grants of $1750 each to create 50 works apiece; those will be distributed to shareholders at pick-up events in September, October and November. So if you spend the $400, you're guaranteed nine works of art. They could be Japanese tea cups, small original paintings, archival photographic prints, wire sculptures, fused glass -- who knows?

Most patrons, of course, have some idea what to expect when they pay for art in advance. A millionaire industrialist who commissions a self-portrait may end up looking like a tycoon or a toad, but he's not going to be handed a landscape or a still-life painting of fruit.

Yet the uncertainty factor makes this idea even more appealing to me. If I got even three winners out of the nine, I'd have my money's worth. And if I didn't immediately like one of these pieces, I could donate it to an auction for charity, give it to someone who admired it or just leave it around long enough to see if it would grow on me. (Works of art can do that.)

And there's always something cool about contributing to an artist's livelihood. Most of us can't buy a piano concerto or a mural, but many of us can commit enough dough to send each of these artists to the grocery store for one week. Patrons come in all sizes.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Pillow where nobody sleeps

I rarely review a piece of a movie, but I was so touched by the abbreviated version of "Never Stand Still" that I'm going to make an exception.

When it reached a few theaters last spring, the documentary ran 78 minutes. The version I saw, which premieres on PBS Friday, has been trimmed to fit into a one-hour time slot. (It'll start on the South Carolina ETV network at 9 p.m. and UNC-TV's network at 9:30 p.m., though both will show encores.) Truncated as it is, it's essential viewing if you love dance. Here's an extended trailer:

The new title gives a clue to what it's about: "Dancing at Jacob's Pillow: Never Stand Still." It's set in the Massachusetts retreat opened in 1931 by modern dancers Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, where the first U.S. theater built specifically for dance inspired a tradition that survives today. (The Royal Danish Ballet and Nederlands Dans Theatre, among other companies, made their U.S. debut there.)

The movie includes brief (too brief) archival footage, including bits of Shawn's groundbreaking all-male company of the 1940s. But my favorite segment showed current bad-boy choreographer Rasta Thomas twitching and flitting for a minute or so to Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee."

Narrator Bill T. Jones fills in the historical gaps, but most of the sound bites come from interviews with great dancers or choreographers linked to the Pillow: Paul Taylor, Mark Morris, Suzanne Farrell. ("We would dance even if no one came," says Farrell. "We want to give: That's our purpose.")

The film conveys especially well how hard it is to make or perform dance: As Morris observes, "Dancing is a job, not a phase to get through." All that lyricism and emotion and excitement comes from hours of sweat and falls and headaches the viewer never sees.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The not-so-lost art of great cast recordings

Like many kids whose families were too poor or far from New York to make trips to Broadway, I first fell in love with musical theater by listening to cast albums. Through the 1970s, either the Columbia or RCA labels could usually be relied on to capture significant new musicals in performances by the original casts.

With my friends, I listened to The Beatles and the Rolling Stones; alone, I soaked up "West Side Story" and "Damn Yankees." When forced to choose a school club in ninth grade (I wasn't much of a joiner), I picked Musical Theater Club, thinking we'd be performing. Instead, dour Mr. Walsh, the Latin teacher with the taped-together eyeglasses, played cast albums of obscurities such as "The Happy Time" or "Milk and Honey" and gave us context for the songs. The magic still worked.

So I was delighted when four newly recorded cast albums, two from Broadway hits and two from lesser-known off-Broadway shows, arrived unsolicited from Ghostlight Records. (Check out http://www.sh-k-boom.com/ for the complete catalog). While bigger labels may still record huge shows (such as Sony's cast album for "Kinky Boots"), Ghostlight has faithfully chronicled productions both notorious ("Book of Mormon") and neglected ("Hands on a Hardbody").

By coincidence, the four releases that hit my desk this month each reveal a different reason why cast albums are crucial. Here's a quick run-down:

The new "Pippin" won Tonys for best musical revival, actress (Patina Miller as the nameless Leading Player) and Andrea Martin as the aged Berthe. The circus atmosphere of this version comes through in the extended (and re-orchestrated) wordless portions, and Miller (a Pageland, S.C., native) leaps out of your speakers with sexual allure and sardonic humor. Most importantly, this recording preserves the lyrics Stephen Schwartz rewrote over time, plus the darker ending. (The egotistical cunning of Pippin's father, played by UNC School of the Arts grad Terrence Mann, seems crueler, and a third generation picks up the illusions Pippin leaves behind.) Here's a look from the 2013 Tony Awards:

"Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella" had never been done on Broadway until this year, so the Ghostlight recording serves a different purpose: It introduces us to a score we don't know, especially as multiple songs have been added to the lineup from the 1957 TV version. The booklet's photos reveal the Tony-winning costumes by Rock Hill's William Ivey Long in their sumptuous glory, and a long introductory essay and plot synopsis help us feel we know the show intimately, even if we haven't seen it. The engineering (which is excellent on all four albums) makes every word effective, though you have to go online for a copy of the libretto. Here's a Tony night excerpt from that show:

“Dogfight” ran five weeks off-Broadway last summer; it’s too small and unknown to tour or, probably, ever get done locally. So this recording preserves a show that left after its short planned run but deserves a hearing. It’s taken from a 1991 film about a Marine en route to Vietnam and a waitress he takes to a “dogfight,” where the soldier who brings the homeliest girl wins a cash prize. Composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul earned a Tony nomination for “A Christmas Story: The Musical,” but this less gaudy story of two clumsy young people finding love stays longer in memory.

“Giant” also preserves a 2012 show, one newly licensed by the Rodgers & Hammerstein organization. Still, I’d guess it’s not well-known enough to tour here and too large to be done locally: 22 singing roles, most impossible to double, and a running time over 3 hours plus two intermissions. Composer-lyricist Michael John LaChiusa and librettist Sybille Pearson also adapted a film – the 1956 drama about life in the Texas ranching and oil country from 1925 through 1952 – but stressed modern themes about immigration and discrimination. LaChiusa’s remarkable score ranges from Mexican folk influences to jazz to western ballads, including a faux state song for Texas. This may be your only chance to hear it.

Monday, July 8, 2013

I miss Jack Nicholson

Not that he's dead or anything, but his career seems to be. He has made one movie in the last six years, the much-reviled "How Do You Know" for his pal James L. Brooks. He has nothing on his plate as actor, director, writer or producer, according to the Internet Movie Data Base.

Yet the man who has more Oscar nominations than any actor in history -- 12, including three wins -- showed up at this year's Academy Award ceremonies to present the best picture prize and seemed to be in good health. He's been photographed this year at a friend's funeral in Paris and courtside at a Spurs-Lakers playoff game, so he's hardly incapacitated.

I've been a Nicholson fan since the 1970 drama "Five Easy Pieces," when his quiet character went berserk after an encounter with a surly waitress. It looked like this:

But he could be sympathetic, too. He won an Oscar for playing Randle McMurphy, the con man who gets himself into a mental institution and becomes a spokesperson for oppressed inmates:

And so it went, across a 52-year stretch that began with a small role in the 1958 crime drama "The Cry Baby Killer." But he turned 76 in April, and his time onscreen appears to have come to an unannounced close.

Actors his age keep working. Dustin Hoffman will be 76 next month, and he takes roles; he also directed his first film, "Quartet," last year. Morgan Freeman, Nicholson's co-star in "The Bucket List," turned 76 last month and has half a dozen movies underway, in pre-production or in post-production. Michael Caine, who's 80, just appeared in "Now You See Me" and has three pictures in the works.

We all have the right to rest on our laurels, and Nicholson's rich enough never to have to work again. There's more dignity in fading quietly away than in appearing in abomination after abomination, as Laurence Olivier did towards the end. (He was allegedly paying his descendants' college costs, apparently for 20 generations.)

Still, I miss Nicholson's energy and unpredictability: Though he could be a caricature of himself near the end, he still had the capacity to surprise us, and some actors never acquire that ability: Does Tom Cruise ever deliver a look or gesture we haven't seen from him before or can't predict?

I can always watch "The Last Detail," "The Shining" or "Chinatown" (which is my favorite among his films) to appreciate his great work. But I'd like to see the only actor nominated for an Oscar in five consecutive decades -- the 60s, 70, 80, 90s and 00s -- get a shot at a sixth decade before he disappears.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Was I sitting next to a star of the future at CPCC?

I moderated an onstage talkback last week after a CPCC Summer Theatre performance of "Damn Yankees," and a thought went through my head: It's not inconceivable that one of these people will be a Tony nominee in another 15 years.

That's happened twice before: Montego Glover and Christopher Fitzgerald, both of whom performed with Summer Theatre in 1994, ended up as musical Tony nominees in 2010: She as best actress in "Memphis," he as best featured actor in "Finian's Rainbow." (I checked our electronic archives for 1994. The word on Glover here was "multi-talented" and "sings beautifully." Fitzgerald, then going by Chris, "entertains us with a series of comic characters." Well, nobody can predict the future.)

CPCC casts its summer net wide, hiring young performers after national auditions and integrating them into casts with locals. In "Damn Yankees," young leads Michael Lawrence and Jordan Frazier came from out of town, while Charlotte's Dennis Delamar played the devilish Applegate.

These young folks don't come in with big reputations or extensive credits, so director Tom Hollis must take a gamble on them. And sometimes that gamble launches a career that will take them to Broadway or out on national tours.

Merwin Foard, who performed at CPCC more than three decades ago, is now playing FDR in the Broadway revival of "Annie." Sandy Binion did "Jane Eyre" on Broadway and national tours of "Sunset Boulevard" and "Anything Goes." Big-voiced Dave Clemmons understudied Jean Valjean in "Les Miz" and eventually turned to casting and producing, taking a hand in the Broadway likes of "Once" and the revival of "Driving Miss Daisy."

Many, like Alex Ellis ("Catch Me If You Can") or Daniel J. Watts (the current "Motown: The Musical") have fruitful careers working in ensembles, until their ankles or desire give out. Some become music directors: Bill Congdon went on to run the pit for national tours of "Mamma Mia!" and "Billy Elliott," Aaron Gandy for the New York productions of "The Lion King" and "Urinetown." Mary Setrakian was the singing narrator of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" 20 years ago at CPCC; now she's best known as the vocal coach who prepared Nicole Kidman for "Moulin Rouge!" and Kate Winslet and James Gandolfini for "Romance & Cigarettes."

There's no real way to gauge talent, of course. I saw Betty Buckley almost 40 years ago in "Pippin," taking over an ingenue role Jill Clayburgh had created. I thought, "Not bad. Nothing extraordinary, but pleasant." Then she won a Tony for "Cats" and took off. Conversely, I saw Anne Marie Bobby in the 1985 Marvin Hamlisch-Howard Ashman flop "Smile" and thought, "She's really going somewhere!" The "somewhere" turned out mostly to be video game voiceovers and guest spots on TV crime dramas.

So you pays your money, and you takes your chance, as the saying goes. You're paying about one-sixth as much at CPCC as you would on Broadway, so it can be a bargain. And you just might catch a new meteor before it blazes a trail through the heavens.

Monday, July 1, 2013

On Broadway, nobody's greater than Loesser

Saturday was the birthday of the composer-lyricist who, for my money, had a higher batting average than anyone in Broadway history: four hits out of five attempts. (Well, Jerry Ross went 2-for-2 with "The Pajama Game" and "Damn Yankees," then died. It's hard to judge him on that scale.)

I'm talking about Frank Loesser, who'd have been 103 on June 29. Though he died at 59, Loesser (pronounced "LESS-er") wrote four classic musicals: the sentimental "Where's Charley?," the mock-gangster comedy "Guys and Dolls," the semi-operatic "The Most Happy Fella" -- which, of all things, gave the city of Dallas its theme song -- and the sardonic "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," which had a Broadway revival in the 2011-12 season with Daniel Radcliffe in the lead.

In his spare time, he wrote four songs that were nominees for Oscars (including "Baby, It's Cold Outside," which won) and about 700 others, one dear to the hearts of Americans in World War II: "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition." He also wrote the best score, Hans down, for any children's musical: "Hans Christian Andersen," with Danny Kaye as the Danish storyteller. In his spare time, he began a production company (Frank Productions) that got behind "The Music Man" and other musicals.

Loesser died in 1969, less than two years after "Hair" changed the Broadway musical landscape. He never saw the decline of traditional tunesmiths (Richard Rodgers, Fritz Loewe) or the rise to power of the brittle wits (Stephen Sondheim, Kander and Ebb) and bombastic Earth-shakers (Andrew Lloyd Webber, the "Les Miz" team). The big Tony-winning musicals the year Loesser died were "1776" and "Promises, Promises," both traditional works by old-fashioned songwriters.

But old-fashioned Loesser wasn't, and that's why his work endures. "Most Happy Fella" has more than two hours of singing, with significant solos for all five principal characters. The lying anti-hero of "How to Succeed" is smarmy and self-obsessed to the point of creepiness; as he finally acknowledges his love for the secretary who stands by him, the upward-crawling J. Pierrepont Finch thinks of another way to advance his career. Sample any of his scores -- even the fantasy-based "Greenwillow," his lone Broadway flop -- and you'll hear a blend of traditional melodies and unusual harmonies, familiar elements and experimentation.

He may have gone out with a fizzle: The 1965 "Pleasures and Palaces," based on a dud play called "Once There Was a Russian," closed in Detroit before reaching Broadway, though director Bob Fosse was reportedly willing to invest his own money to keep it going. But if lung cancer hadn't felled Loesser (an avid smoker), I bet he'd have had something great left in him.