Friday, August 30, 2013

Hoist a pint and sing "Danny Boy" today

Many classical composers celebrate big anniversaries this year: Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner were born 200 years ago, while Witold Lutoslawski, Jerome Moross, Morton Gould and Benjamin Britten would have been 100 this year. But I'm paying tribute to a classic Irish song, which also gets its centenary in 1913.

To some, this beautiful farewell to a loved one remains a tear-jerker. To others, it has become a corny joke. It can be interpreted as a father's blessing to his son, a woman parting from a lover/husband or a symbolic tribute to the Irish people spread across the globe by the diaspora of the 19th century. 

It has been recorded by Eric Clapton and Jerry Lee Lewis and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Conway Twitty (whose rockabilly version was apparently banned by the BBC) and Cher and Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash and Tony Bennett (with Stan Getz on sax and Herbie Hancock on piano) and Elvis Presley, at whose 1977 funeral it was played.

Here are a couple of my favorite performances. The first is by Frank Patterson, a traditional interpretation heard on the soundtrack of "Miller's Crossing." The second is by the late and definitely great Jackie Wilson.

The music predates the lyrics by English attorney Frederic Weatherly, (He also wrote the religious song "The Holy City" and the World War I hit "Roses of Picardy.") Weatherly first wrote these verses to a now-forgotten tune in 1910; only after his sister-in-law in America sent him the 19th-century instrumental piece known as "Londonderry Air" did he produce the immortal version that Elsie Griffin made popular in 1913.

By my own youth in the 1960s, comedians could get a laugh by mocking the opening line: "Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling..." But the last verse has always seemed poignant to me, as the parent (or possibly lover) imagines Danny coming back to Ireland and standing at the singer's grave:

And I shall hear, though soft you tread above me
And all my grave will warm and sweeter be
And then you'll kneel and whisper that you love me
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me.

I'm about as Irish as a plate of felafel, but this song has always made me feel just a little like a son of Erin.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Conquer constipation with Brahms!

The Japan Philharmonic Orchestra is reaching a younger, tech-savvy audience by marketing music in "prescriptions" that can be applied to daily life. The Japan Pill-Harmonic program sells "pills" -- mini SD cards loaded with classical music -- to customers in small envelopes like the ones used for prescription drugs. You identify your condition; the Pill-harmonic prescribes a remedy.

Thus the "Spring" section of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" can be used to restore beautiful skin, the overture to Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" enhances appetite -- it may indeed, as its rotund composer was a famous gourmand -- and Barber's Adagio for Strings induces a good cry. (No surprise, as it's been a tearjerker in movies from "Platoon" to "The Elephant Man.")

Here's the general idea:

A few of the suggestions strike me as bizarre: Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," based on the fable of a hapless character who makes a terrible decision, is billed as a way someone make a decision. Mahler's Tenth Symphony provides "pleasant sleep," though it churns up profound emotions that aren't always peaceful. The Ride of the Valkyries from Wagner's "Die Walkure" presumably makes one "feel male," but all the singing Valkyries are female.

And listening to the first movement of Brahms' First Symphony supposedly relieves constipation, although that piece recycles themes at great length. (I don't agree with Tchaikovsky's assessment of Brahms as "a giftless bastard," but the music doesn't exactly surge forward.) I couldn't find any explanation of how the Pill-harmonic made these distinctions, but Brahms would probably be amused.

This advertising campaign won a top prize in June at the Cannes Lions 60th International Festival of Creativity. I'm all for increasing the size of the classical music audience, and if this works, I hope American orchestras will consider it. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a spot of indigestion. The final movement of Haydn's C Major Cello Concerto ought to clear that right up.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The best Broadway musical you never saw?

In the furor over "Kinky Boots," "Matilda" and "Pippin" two months ago at the Tony Awards, one musical show got skunked -- and it's my favorite new score of the last few years, hands down. (Good though "Kinky Boots" is.)

"Hands on a Hardbody" got three nominations: best score (Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green) and featured actor/actress nods for Keith Carradine and Keala Settle, who play two of the Texas contestants trying to win a truck by keeping one hand on the vehicle's body longer than the others. (Charlotteans may remember her cheerful Tracy Turnblad in the 2005 national tour of "Hairspray" or tragic Bloody Mary in the 2009 tour of "South Pacific.")

I've never been a Phish fan, but Anastasio (its guitarist and vocalist) wrote a diverse, melodically rich score for this musical. It ranges from rousing gospel numbers to fiddle-flavored country tunes to uptempo blues full of nasty electric guitar. Here are a couple of samples:

Lyricist Amanda Green ("Bring It On: The Musical"), the daughter of Tony-winning lyricist Adolph Green, grew up in New York. Librettist Doug Wright (a Pulitzer-winner for "I Am My Own Wife") grew up in a Dallas suburb. They have written compassionately for all the characters, from the Marine unable to adjust to civilian life to the Latina woman filled with the heavenly spirit to the elderly couple scraping along on their last thin dimes. Even the token bad guy, who has won a truck before and re-enters the contest out of sheer ego, justifies himself along the way and gets the most powerful song in the show: "God Answered My Prayers (He Said No)." The writers treat everyone with respect and affection, even the rib-shack hostess who tries to rig the contest.

Maybe the musical got short shrift because it doesn't have visual dazzle, power ballads, reams of cute kids or climactic uplift: The person who wins the contest, left alone onstage, can scarcely believe what has happened, though the cast reunites for the moving anthem "Keep Your Hands On It." The photos in the original cast album from Ghostlight Records show simple lighting, humble costumes and nothing on stage but 15 people and one truck.

But maybe that simplicity could make it attractive to a local producer. It ran for just one month this spring on Broadway, so I don't expect a national tour to come here. If any impresarios can get a vehicle onto their stages, this might play better in the South -- where people actually drive trucks -- than on the Great White Way.

Friday, August 23, 2013

All our racial problems are in the past!

Or so it seems, if you take mainstream Hollywood's view. I thought about that while "Lee Daniels' The Butler" dominated the domestic box office this week, beating all competition.

It's a comprehensive, heartfelt, well-constructed look at America's civil rights history, set mostly in the 1960s. Meanwhile, "Fruitvale Station" played to much smaller audiences in a much more limited release. That film depicts the last day of Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man fatally shot in the back by a white police officer in San Francisco five years ago. (The films have something in common: Forest Whitaker plays the title role in the big one and was a producer on the little one.)

This seems to be a pattern: We embrace movies set in the past, maybe even before most of us lived, but stories set in our own time make us uncomfortable. "The Help," "42," "Red Tails" and even "Django Unchained" get national attention; movies about the way we live today get relegated to one screen at the multiplex, if nothing more marketable can be found.

That wasn't always true. While America wrestled with racial issues in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Hollywood writers and directors based big films on that controversy. From 1958 through 1967, six such movies -- all with contemporary settings -- earned Academy Award nominations for best picture. There have been just six more racially themed nominees in the last 45 years, and only two of them ("Crash" and "District 9") are set in the era when they were made.

So what happened? Are we tired of talking about a problem that has existed for more than 300 years in this country? Do we think this issue is happily settled forever? Or do we believe the racial divide is here to stay -- and maybe can never be bridged -so there's no point in thinking about it?

I see a connection here with war movies. Hollywood busily made stories about World War II during and after that conflict, because virtually all Americans agreed Nazis were terrible and Hitler had to go. That's why "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan" could still be hits 40 years after the fact. But Vietnam divided us, and recent wars have left us queasy with indecision. So we don't see many mainstream pictures about Iraq or Afghanistan, unless they have the "We killed Osama!" vibe of "Zero Dark Thirty."

Nobody but a fool or a sadist now thinks racial segregation was a great idea and Jim Crow laws were appropriate legislation. We can all cheer for Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat, for African-American kids walking proudly into once-forbidden public schools, for brave students sitting-in at lunch counters in the 1960s. But that's the last time the vast majority of Americans knew what had to be done to improve race relations.

Things have gotten more confusing, even ugly, since then. So we retreat in movie theaters to times that are simpler, easier to define, more soothing to troubled psyches. That's a natural reaction. But it means a lot of things are left unsaid, at least in Hollywood. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Moms: Why bring small children to 'You're Next'?

Just a handful of questions:

1) Which parts of this R-rated horror film did you think they'd enjoy most? The scenes were people were slain graphically with machetes and arrows from a crossbow? The segment where a grizzled older man rolls off a bored student after grunting through sex, and she walks around with her shirt open for a while? Maybe the ones where people curse like drunken sailors who have just been mugged in an alley?

2) Could you really not afford a caretaker? I know they don't work for pizza any more, but was two hours' worth of babysitting beyond your budget?

3) I realize that, to some degree, your attendance was the distributor's fault: Lionsgate should have insisted that no one under 12 be admitted for any reason, and you should have been sent home or shunted over to another movie. But do you really think no harm was done by exposing your elementary schoolers -- the two kids I saw were little girls -- to savage images of slaughter?

4) Are you this neglectful and inept in all aspects of motherhood? If so, when your kids' moral fiber is as thin as a communion wafer someday, you may wonder how the heck they turned out so badly. The answer will be looking back at you from the mirror.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Could you use 100 shoes? CAST is emptying its attic.

From 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Carolina Actors Studio Theatre will hold its first "indoor yard sale" at 2424 N. Davidson Street, in the building that houses Amelie's. CAST will clean out props and costumes to get ready for the upcoming season, which opens Aug. 29 with "Elemeno Pea."

In just two years in its NoDA space, the company has accumulated stuff it will never use again: umbrellas, lamps, clothes, a Hammond organ in working order, candle-holders and the candles to put in them, and (Sadly, the rowboat that was somehow acquired was too damaged to sell. Hey, it's hard to find a used rowboat for next to nothing.)

Executive director Crystal Dempsey says CAST needs the middle of its three spaces, which had inadvertently become a kind of storage room, to become "what it was originally intended to be: a space where you can gather to talk about shows and meet other theater lovers." It could also be rented out for workshops, classes or parties.

Folks from other theater companies are welcome to browse, but so are unaffiliated bargain-hunters. There's no inventory or price list: You just have to drop by to see if anything suits you. I picked up a powder-blue polyester tuxedo at a similar event years ago at CPCC Theatre, so I guarantee you amazing treasures can be found at these events. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Hey, theater folks: My bladder needs guidance!

I don't know what made me ask an usher at "I Love Lucy Live on Stage" last week if it had a break in the middle, but I was glad I did. "Nope," she said, tearing my ticket. "It's 110 minutes without an inter-" Before she could get to "mission," I was bolting for the bathroom.

Now, I realize 110 minutes isn't a long time to sit. Virtually every movie for adults runs at least that long, and almost all of us can watch those without getting up, sometimes after drinking a cup of soda the size of a Hyundai.

But most of us attending plays have been trained to expect an interval. Theater can often be a special event, preceded by a big meal with a couple of glasses of wine or tea. (One glass of wine, if I'm reviewing. Or none.) Psychologically, we're going to be ready to stretch our legs after 60 or 70 minutes.

Some plays lose their impact when they stop in the middle. (Not "Lucy," which had a natural place for a break but didn't use one.) When feelings run high, a playwright may not want to pull us up short, then build that emotional arc again from scratch in the second act.

If that's the case, producers should have a crier walk through the lobby beforehand yelling, "Hear ye, hear ye! There is no intermission in tonight's show!" (A big sign by the front entrance would also do.) But an announcement from the stage just before the lights go down isn't good enough: There's too little time for people to come and go in a mass exodus.

I'd think most producers would want an intermission every time, in hopes of selling snacks and drinks in the lobby. But if there's not a break, they should let us know well before we settle into our seats. Even the most youthful theatergoers would appreciate a word to the wise.

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Belmont Drive-In is back!

I cheered when a reader sent me the news that the Belmont Drive-In, the closest ozoner (as they used to be called) to Charlotte, is re-opening today. Sure enough, the website ( says that the fabled drive-in established by the late Bill and Peggy Lawing will be showing "Elysium" and "Grown-Ups 2."

I haven't been to a drive-in since Bill Clinton was president: I have no kids, I don't like the heat, and I see most movies before they open anyway, because I'm writing reviews. But I get a nostalgic buzz when I think of the glory days of the 1970s, when I parked under the stars at a drive-in at the wheel of a friend's borrowed convertible.

The $10 per carload price makes drive-ins economically competitive, too. My wife and I can see a matinee for $5 each, but I'd be heading for the drive-in if I were bringing a bunch of children. (I can still remember when admission was charged by the head, and we stuck a guy in the trunk because we didn't have the cash to get him in legitimately. The per-carload price prevents the need to shove a pal next to the spare tire.)

Of course, snack bar sales keep a place like this open, as the site acknowledges, and I smiled as I perused the menu. It includes State Fair corndogs, 130-ounce buckets of popcorn, whole kosher dill pickles and pickled eggs. Clearly, this place can feed a carload of people, too.

It may be late in the season to open a drive-in with little fanfare, though we've got a couple of months of warm weather left. I hope nostalgia freaks, young people and big families will keep this place in business, even if old fogeys like me rely on air conditioning and a roof over our heads that doesn't belong to a sedan.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Farewell, N.C. Shakespeare Festival?

Or N.C. Shakes, as it recently redubbed itself in an effort to appeal to audiences with short attention spans in the digital era. Its board of directors suspended operations last week and won't produce any plays this year, though they hope to provide in-school Shakespeare to Go shows in 2014.

I saw my first live "Macbeth" there in 1980, a few months after I came to work in Charlotte, but I didn't see a whole summer season until 1985, during my first stint as theater critic. I've gone sporadically up to High Point since then: The Observer stopped covering culture in the Triad five years ago, but I always liked to see at least one play a year there. Actors came from around the region to perform, often developing long acquaintances with the company, so I felt a kind of reunion spirit when I went. Many were directed by Steve Umberger, who founded Actor's Contemporary Ensemble (which became Charlotte Repertory Theatre).

I wondered even 25 years ago how the company could survive in High Point, where the auditorium was seldom half-full on weekends. Yet it managed to produce two Shakespeare plays every year plus two or three others, including the ubiquitous "A Christmas Carol." By 2009, it was down to two plays; by 2011, it squeezed out only "A Christmas Carol."

The recession dealt all cultural groups a harsh blow, and theater companies (like all endeavors) have a natural life span; maybe 35 years was enough. Perhaps there's even a small silver lining: Charlotte Shakespeare continues to do pay-what-you-choose productions of the Bard in the summer -- "Macbeth" opens Aug. 15 at Booth Playhouse -- so perhaps folks close to the Triad will come down here to get their Shakespeare fix.

But I'll miss the 80-mile drive up and back. Sometimes I'd stay over at the hotel across the street, seeing an evening show one night and a matinee the next. Theater became something special -- not just a casual outing, but an event that required some preparation and lingered long in the mind. I guess too few people felt that way.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Jews write the best cowboy music

In the cinema, anyway. As proof, check this out:

For my money, that's one of the five greatest movie themes ever. I thought of Jerome Moross today, because Thursday was his 100th birthday, and his score for that 1958 western epic justly earned an Oscar nomination. This is a big year for musical anniversaries: Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi were born 200 years ago, Benjamin Britten 100 years ago. (Britten also wrote film scores in the 1930s.) But Moross, who died at 69 and spent his life alternating between soundtracks and classical compositions, has been overlooked.

Listening to "The Big Country" got me thinking about my all-time favorite film theme:

That one comes from Elmer Bernstein, who was nominated for 14 Oscars. Bernstein, like Moross, was Jewish. So was Dimitri Tiomkin, who wrote the immortal theme and score for "High Noon." So was Victor Young, who earned an amazing 24 Oscar nominations before he died at 57 and made a name for himself with the Joel McCrea western "Wells Fargo."

And Aaron Copland, the quintessential New York-based Jewish composer of the 20th century, was nominated for an Oscar for his score for "Of Mice and Men" (set among migrant workers in California) and wrote a plaintive score for "The Red Pony," another adaptation of a western novella by John Steinbeck.

Why should this be? Did these urban composers, settled among the canyons of steel in New York or Los Angeles, long for the sprawl of open country? Did these descendants of a long-migratory people sympathize with characters who were trying to make a living in an untamed land where they weren't always welcome?

That's a question I can't answer. But it popped into my head today.