Saturday, December 27, 2014

Robin Williams remembered by 'Dead Poets Society' producer, screenwriter

According to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal, actor-comedian Robin Williams' suicide last summer prompted the largest number of Google searches during 2014. It was also one of the top-ten topics on Facebook.*

The tragic and untimely passing of Robin Williams in August made for the most Googled term of the year. The actor’s name ranked No. 1 on Google’s most searched list of 2014. Last week, Facebook released data around the most-talked about topics on the social-networking platform, and Williams ranked No. 4. Needless to say, this moment was one of the biggest of the year.
This year also marked the 25th anniversary of the release of Dead Poets Society, the 1989 film that brought Robin Williams his second Oscar nomination for best actor in a leading role. (He later won an Academy Award for best supporting actor for 1997's Good Will Hunting.)  Dead Poets Society also earned Williams a Golden Globe nomination for acting.

To commemorate the movie's quarter-century and to pay tribute to Williams, the Virginia Film Festival screened the film and brought its screenwriter, Tom Schulman, and one of its producers, Paul Junger Witt, to Charlottesville to participate in a conversation about the making of Dead Poets Society. The discussion was moderated by film and stage director Mitch Levine, president of the Film Festival Group.

In addition to Dead Poets Society, for which he received an Academy Award, Tom Schulman's screenplays include Honey I Shrunk the Kids (with Rick Moranis, 1989), Medicine Man (with Sean Connery, 1992), and Welcome to Mooseport (with Ray Romano and Gene Hackman, 2004). His producing credits include Indecent Proposal (with Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson, 1993) and Me, Myself, and Irene (with Jim Carrey, 2000), and he directed 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag (with Joe Pesci, 1997).

Paul Junger Witt has produced more than 60 movies and TV shows, ranging from 1960s TV series like Occasional Wife, The Second Hundred Years, and Here Come the Brides to The Partridge Family and Soap in the 1970s (a decade in which he also produced the award-winning TV movie, Brian's Song with James Caan and Billy Dee Williams) to Benson, The Golden Girls, Empty Nest, and Blossom in the 1980s.

Levine, Schulman, and Witt discussed Dead Poets Society and related topics on Sunday, November 9, the closing night of the 2014 Virginia Film Festival at the Culbreth Theater on the grounds of the University of Virginia.

Paul Junger Witt at the Virginia Film Festival
Asked by Levine whether Robin Williams was the first choice to play John Keating, the unconventional English teacher at a boys' boarding school in 1959 New England, both Schulman and Witt nodded their affirmation.

Director Peter Weir, Witt said, “got a performance from Robin that we hadn't seen before.” For the younger cast members (including Robert Sean Leonard, Josh Charles, and Ethan Hawke), “most of whom were green, were inexperienced, Robin actually became that figure [of an inspiring teacher] because he was so generous and so patient with the kids and kept them so loose and kept them laughing and inspired. They adored him, much the same way, as characters, they adored their teacher.”

Before Dead Poets Society, he noted, Williams “had done a couple of turns as a serious actor and he had an energy that we believed audiences would find believable in terms of a teacher who is inspiring.”

Schulman added that “we encouraged Robin to bring as much of himself as he could to the part. Dinging the bell and things like that, that's Robin, his comedy.”

Levine suggested that what he finds “remarkable” about Williams' performance as John Keating “is that he doesn't do – forgive me – the 'Robin Williams shtick,' with the performance. It's so subtle and so nuanced that even when he's imitating Marlon Brando, it's with reason and truth and intent and complete believability. For those who, at that moment, only knew him from the funny stuff, it's a remarkable tribute to him as part of this collaboration.”

Schulman agreed: “It seemed to me the essence of his character was to reach these boys and Robin gave of himself in that way. You can feel the connection.”

Witt agreed, as well: “And they adored him. If any of them could have made it this evening, they would have. Most of them are working, which speaks to how well it was cast. They just adored him.”

Recalling Williams' unexpected passing last August, Levine said that “one thing I was particularly struck with when we learned of his death was [the] outpouring of public and private mourning and grief for a man who was a public figure and not part people's lives in an immediate way, for most of us – yet people grieved as if they lost one of their own. I think, for me at any rate, he was so lacking in guile. That's so rare. There wasn't an evil molecule in him and for him to offer a performance like this” in Dead Poets Society, “it's for the ages, and we have it for the ages, which is a fact.”

Witt added that he had worked on a second film with Williams, the Christopher Nolan-directed Insomnia, which also featured Al Pacino.

“It was a tough shoot,” he said. Pacino's acting style “is very different than Robin's but they blended perfectly and Robin kept, as he could, the entire set loose. He even managed to make Al smile a couple of times. He was just an extraordinary talent and a really good guy.”

On the set of Dead Poets Society, Schulman recalled, “As soon as you'd call cut, he would start doing his thing and at a certain point you'd just have to send him away because you couldn't get any work done.”

Witt also remembered how one of the key shots in the film had to be done on the morning of New Year's Day, because the weather conditions were just what were needed.

“We couldn't take a break between Christmas and New Year's,” he said. “We had the school [St. Andrew's School in Middletown, Delaware] and we could use it completely because the students were home” for the holidays.

“There was one shot that Peter had planned but there was never enough snow” to do it, he continued.

On New Year's morning, “after an evening of debauchery, the crew came together with [cinematographer John Seale] and they went out and got this one extraordinary shot and gave it to the director as a gift because it was on their own time, on a holiday, [with] no charges to the production because it would have been triple [time] or whatever.”

That was the shot in the snow when the students have learned about their classmate's suicide.

At Levine's request – because it was a show he grew up with – Witt talked a bit about his experience producing The Partridge Family, the 1970-74 ABC-TV sitcom about a musical family led by mom Shirley Jones and featuring David Cassidy, Susan Dey, Danny Bonaduce, and Dave Madden.

“I wish I could tell you a happy story,” Witt replied. “It was a kind of a nightmare. The business can, – and especially a series – can be very hard on kids. I did the pilot and the first year and I walked away from a hit because of what I was seeing and could not stop. I was never sorry. I never again did a series that featured kids that young. And we chose the kids, the children we worked with very, very, very carefully in areas beyond their talent. It's tough and that show was painful for me in that respect.”

Screenwriter Tom Schulman
An audience member noted that “Robin Williams humor seems so organic,” almost like rock and roll. “Did he seem to suppress it during filming?”

Schulman said no, he didn't.

“In fact, I remember the first day Robin showed up for a shot. He was going to be there for a day and he was going to go to New York for two weeks to be in a play. And he seemed almost too on-book, so literal in the way he was delivering the lines that it worried me. I wanted more of Robin's humor and Peter [Weir] agreed and said, 'Well, we've got two weeks to think about it.'”

When Williams came back to the set, the director “did an improv with Robin. He said, 'What would you like to teach the class? A little Shakespeare, maybe read to them?'”

Weir told Williams he would shoot the improvs, just to see what happened.

“And Robin came in and did that improv, he did the John Wayne thing, he did a reading from that book, and something connected. Robin realized, 'Even though I'm doing all the talking, it's a dialogue, I'm getting something from these kids.' It changed his performance right away and from that day on, Peter never said another word about Robin's performance. Robin just got it. Peter called him 'Robin Keating' – Robin and the character became the same guy. It felt to me that whatever wacky humor Robin used, say on Mork & Mindy or in his improv, he never used that” during the filming of Dead Poets Society. “It was all blended into the teaching” of the character, John Keating.

The entire conversation among Mitch Levine, Tom Schulman, and Paul Junger Witt can be seen on this YouTube video.

*For what it's worth, here's the entire top-ten Google search list for 2014:

1. Robin Williams
2. World Cup
3. Ebola
4. Malaysia Airlines
5. ALS Ice Bucket Challenge
6. Flappy Bird
7. Conchita Wurst
9. Frozen
10. Sochi Olympics

I have no idea who or what “Conchita Wurst” is, and I imagine a lot of people asking “What is Flappy Bird?”

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Director Barry Levinson Talks About Making 'The Natural'

Movie director and screenwriter Barry Levinson is in the entertainment news pages these days because he is making his debut as a musical theater writer. He is now adapting his 1982 film, Diner, into a musical play at Tony Award-winning Signature Theatre in Arlington.

Levinson's collaborators on this world-premiere musical version of Diner include Signature artistic director Eric Schaeffer and composer-lyricist Sheryl Crow, who is also writing her first score for a book musical.

In a feature by the Washington Post's Nelson Pressley, Levinson acknowledges that he's not a big fan of musicals but he's dived into the genre to create this new version of Diner for the stage.
Levinson’s been reading theatrical memoirs and marveling about great numbers written under the gun on the road, even though in his early days he met weekly deadlines as a TV writer for Marty Feldman and Carol Burnett. This was just after he studied broadcast journalism at American University and interned at a Washington TV station, working on the morning puppet show and eventually directing the evening news – just like the protagonist in “Sixty-Six.”

But he’s never been particularly crazy about musicals. He enjoyed “Book of Mormon” and laughed at “The Producers,” by his old mentor Mel Brooks – Levinson helped write “Silent Movie” and “High Anxiety” – but he rightly categorizes them as comedies first, with music. What he really admires is the sturdy melodic stuff, like “South Pacific.”

He can talk “Guys and Dolls” and “Carousel,” [director Kathleen] Marshall says, and Crow says he easily refers to everything from early rockabilly icon Eddie Cochran to “High Society.” But at the diner, he seems wary of the dark mark of the frivolous Broadway show.

“I’m not precious about the material,” he says. “But it does have to be a dramatic comedy. There are dilemmas. Shrevie and Beth don’t share common interests, and they’re desperately trying to connect. You can’t just pull that out and make it a fluffy piece.”
Last month in Charlottesville, Levinson came to the Virginia Film Festival, where he discussed the making of his 1984 baseball film, The Natural, with New York Times journalist Mike Tackett.  Over the same weekend, the director also presented his newest film, The Humbling, which features Al Pacino as a late-career actor in a panic.  The Humbling is based on a novel by Philip Roth.

Based on a novel by Bernard Malamud, Levinson's film version of The Natural starred Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs and a supporting cast that included Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Barbara Hershey, Robert Prosky, Kim Basinger, Wilford Brimley, Richard Farnsworth, and Darren McGavin (uncredited).

Here is video of that conversation, recorded at the Paramount Theater on Charlottesville's downtown mall on Sunday, November 9:

Other celebrities who spoke at the Virginia Film Festival this year included actor Richard Roundtree (Shaft) and novelist Adriana Trigiani (Big Stone Gap), as well as political scions Barry Goldwater, Jr., and Skip Humphrey.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Sanctions: South Africa, Libya, and the Cuban Embargo

Today's announcement from Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro about progress toward normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba and the possible end of the 55-year-old embargo on trade with that island nation reminded me of a time, long ago, when I was testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee subcommittee on Africa.

The topic was sanctions against South Africa, with an aim of ending apartheid there.

I testified that sanctions were a futile gesture and never worked the way they were intended.

The subcommittee chairman, Howard Wolpe (D-Mich.) identifying me as a conservative -- I was testifying alongside Alan Keyes -- tried to trap me by asking whether I also opposed sanctions against Libya or Cuba. I said yes. He was surprised but commended me for my consistency.

Here's a clip from C-SPAN of that hearing on November 5, 1987:

Here's the entire three-and-a-half hour hearing, which includes testimony from Chester A. Crocker, Assistant Secretary, Department of State-African Affairs; Thomas Reilly Donahue, Secretary-Treasurer, AFL-CIO; Nicholas Haysom, Deputy Director, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg-Centre for Applied Legal Studies; Alan Keyes, Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute; James Mndaweni, President, National Council of Trade Unions; Thokoana "James" James Motlatsi, President, South Africa-National Union of Mineworkers; Patrick J. O'Farrell, Executive Director, African-American Labor Center; Richard Sincere, Research Associate, Ethics and Public Policy Center; Damu Smith, Executive Director, Washington Office on Africa; and Peggy Taylor, DirectorAFL-CIO-Legislation.

Has It Been Ten Years Already?

Today marks the tenth anniversary of my blogging life.

Starting here on December 17, 2004, this writing platform has expanded to include Book Reviews by Rick Sincere, Where Are the Copy Editors?, Bearing Drift, and the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner, with a few smaller projects along the way. The orbit of this blog includes three YouTube channels (see the sidebar to your left).

By coincidence, I produced several interesting blog posts on December 17, without making explicit reference to its being a blogoversary.

By far the most popular of these has been one from last year, headlined "Obligatory Dylan Sprouse Nude Selfie Blog Post." To date, that report on the former Disney Channel star's naked mishap and his deft handling of it has been viewed 4,723 times, which is a pretty good rate.  It's remarkable how interested people are in seeing a celebrity's genitals.

On this date in 2007, I noted that that was the ten-year anniversary of the blog itself.

Quoting Kai Ryssdal, the host of the public radio show, Marketplace, at the time:
The blog is celebrating an anniversary today. Ten years ago a guy named Jorn Barger coined the term "weblog" to describe his website Robot Wisdom. It was shortened to "blog" two years later by someobody else.

Back then only about 23 websites were properly considered blogs. These days, whether you write them or read them, blogs are a pretty common pursuit.

Estimates are that 120,000 new ones are created everyday. No word, though, on how many are actually read.

There are a lot more than 23 "weblogs" today, that's for sure.

The most-viewed post on this blog was "Snowpocalypse!," a collection of photos from the big snowstorm of December 2009 -- published, coincidentally, on December 18.

The second most popular post is an oddity: "Shirtless and Circumcised," which traces strange search terms that lead readers to this blog.

Other blogoversary posts have included "Christmas Carols: The Odd and the New," a review of the Daily Telegraph Book of Carols, also from 2009.

On December 17, 2006, I took the Washington Post ombudsman to task for sloppy writing in "Small Pool."

Two years later, I reported on the progress of the breathtaking recount in the razor-thin race between then-Congressman Virgil Goode (R-Rocky Mount) and future former Congressman Tom Perriello (D-Ivy) in "Fifth District Recount Continues."

Only once, nine years ago, in 2005, did I make an explicit commemoration of the start of my blogging in "Anniversary Waltz." In fact, for a long time, I thought my blog-start was on December 22. I had to look up the correct date as I prepared for this post!

Let's hope I have at least ten more good years of filling this space with compelling words arranged in sentences and paragraphs.


Saturday, December 13, 2014


It's December 13, 2014 or, expressed another way, it's 12/13/14.

Numerically successive dates only occur twelve times each century. The next time we'll encounter one is just over 88 years from now, on January 2, 2103 (or 1/2/3).

The other dates like this we've seen so far this century include February 3, 2004; June 7, 2008; and November 12, 2013.

People whose birthdays fall on these unusual dates include gangster Pretty Boy Floyd (February 3, 1904), American football player Weeb Ewbank (May 6, 1907), actress and singer Betty Noyes (October 11, 1912), Brazilian nurse Ana Néri (December 13, 1814), and English historian Alan Bullock (December 13, 1914).

Notable deaths that happened on these dates include those of French painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze (March 4, 1805), Italian general Nicola Calipari (March 4, 2005), singer-songwriter Gene Pitney (April 5, 2006), actor-director-screenwriter Curtis Harrington (May 6, 2007), sportscaster Jim McKay (June 7, 2008), Chinese martial artist Huo Yuanjia (August 9, 1910), Alaska Senator Ted Stevens (August 9, 2010), Oscar-winning actor Cliff Robertson (September 10, 2011), French singer Frank Alamo (October 11, 2012), Polish astronomer Konrad Rudnicki and English composer John Tavener (both November 12, 2013), and Charles-Joseph, 7th Prince of Ligne (December 13, 1814).

On July 8, 1709, Tsar Peter I of Russia defeated King Charles XII of Sweden at the Battle of Poltava. Ninety-nine years earlier, on August 9, 1610, the first Anglo-Powhatan War began in colonial Virginia, while on the same date in 1810, the Emperor Napoleon annexed Westphalia. On October 11, 1912, The Greek army liberated the city of Kozani during the first Balkan War.

Meanwhile, today is celebrated as Acadian Remembrance Day, Republic Day in Malta, and the Christian feast of St. Lucy (commemorated in Scandinavia and Italy), and the national independence day of St. Lucia in the Caribbean.

Friday, December 05, 2014

'Bootleggers and Baptists': An Interview with Adam Smith

Over on Book Reviews by Rick Sincere is a recent interview with economist Adam Smith of Johnson & Wales University.

Smith is the coauthor, with his grandfather Bruce Yandle, of Bootleggers & Baptists: How Economic Forces and Moral Persuasion Interact to Shape Regulatory Politics, which was published by the Cato Institute in September.

The two authors gave a presentation about their book at Cato in October. Afterward, I spoke to Smith about the book and its title. Here is an excerpt:

Smith explained that the term “bootleggers and Baptists” originated during alcohol Prohibition in the 1920s, when “you had bootleggers and Baptists with aligned interests” even if they did not realize it.

Baptists, he explained, proclaimed “Down with legalized distribution of alcohol!” because they saw drinking as morally detrimental. Bootleggers, too, proclaimed “Down with legalized distribution of alcohol!” because Prohibition raised the price of illegal liquor and fed more profits to the bootleggers.

“It was a boon to the bootleggers,” Smith explained, “and the Baptists were kind of oblivious to that situation.”

Broadening the concept to include other kinds of regulations, Smith said, “what we see today in our modern political economy [are] many, many manifestations of the same kinds of strange bedfellows.”

More and more, he said, “we're seeing that those bedfellows are recognizing one another and coming together to form even more powerful would-be bootlegger/Baptist coalitions.”

There is also a relationship between “bootleggers and Baptists” and “crony capitalism,” when government grants preferential treatment to certain, well-connected businesses.

Smith said that, in the book “we call it 'bootlegger/Baptist' capitalism instead of crony capitalism.”
Read the whole thing here.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Shaft: Richard Roundtree at the Virginia Film Festival

Richard Roundtree at UVA
After a screening of the 1971 Gordon Parks film, Shaft, at the 2014 Virginia Film Festival, actor Richard Roundtree (who created the role of detective John Shaft) was interviewed by University of Virginia historian John Mason, who also fielded questions for Roundtree from the audience.

Although Roundtree is rightly associated with Shaft -- he also starred in the sequels Shaft's Big Score and Shaft in Africa, as well as a TV series of the same name -- his TV credits include Roots, A Different World, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and Desperate Housewives, while his film roles have included turns in Earthquake, Killpoint, Se7en (with Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman), and Young Warriors, among others.

For those unfamiliar with the film -- which has been unfairly included as part of the 1970s' "Blaxploitation" genre -- one of the synopses on IMDB explains:
Private detective John Shaft is hired by Harlem mobster Bumpy Jonas to find his kidnapped daughter. Bumpy has no idea who might have taken her but isn't as forthcoming as he could be about his situation. When his first lead peters out - he thought it might be Black power advocates who took the girl - he acts on information from NYPD Lt. Vic Androzzi that outside mobsters are in town and might be trying to take over various illegal businesses in Harlem.
This conversation took place in UVA's Culbreth Theater on the opening night of this year's Virginia Film Festival, coincident with the November 6 world premiere of Big Stone Gap at the Paramount Theater downtown. 

The screening and ensuing discussion also coincided with an exhibition of Gordon Parks photographs at the University of Virginia's Fralin Museum of Art, which Mason and Roundtree viewed earlier in the day.

Roundtree talked about making the film in a wintry New York, the value of the film's music score (by Isaac Hayes, who won an Academy Award for the theme song), and advice for young actors getting their start in show business.

Sadly, my camera's battery died about five minutes before the discussion ended, but the bulk of it is preserved in this 35 minute video clip.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

From the Archives: A Review of the Revival of 'Chicago' (1997)

Monday's post about Big Stone Gap, which mentioned cast member Jasmine Guy, reminded me about how, in the last years of the last century, I reviewed a musical she starred in: a national tour of  Kander and Ebb's Chicago.

Guy played Velma Kelly in the revival of the Bob Fosse musical, on tour at the National Theatre in Washington in the spring of 1997. Notably, this revival is still playing on Broadway -- a continuous run dating to November 14, 1996, adding up to 7,494 performances as of November 30, 2014.

From the archives, here is my review. It appeared in The Metro Herald in May 1997 and contains some contemporaneous references that may be inscrutable to anyone born since 1994.

My Kind of Town . . . Chicago Is
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Stand aside, Comet Hale-Bopp -- there's a new star rising above the Washington horizon, and she's at the National Theatre! The new star is Belle Calaway, the understudy who took over the key role of Roxie Hart in the new touring company of Chicago, and blew away the crowd on opening night.

Jasmine Guy
Calaway and her co-star, Jasmine Guy, brought the audience to its feet with thundering applause. While Guy slithered sensually across the stage, Calaway exuded energy enthusiastically. A last minute replacement for Charlotte d'Amboise, who is nursing an injury and expected to return to the cast in about three weeks, Calaway evokes the spirit -- and star-power -- of Gwen Verdon, who created the musical role of Roxie Hart in 1975. In fact, Calaway's vocal and dance style nearly replicates Verdon's, a remarkable feat in itself. The question remains: If Calaway -- the understudy -- is this terrific, how good is d'Amboise herself? We'll see in a few weeks.

Chicago features one of the best scores by John Kander and Fred Ebb, who also wrote Cabaret (1966) and the dreadful (but Tony-winning) Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992). Conceived by the legendary director-choreographer Bob Fosse, Chicago is a tuneful and sophisticated musical play. Like Cabaret, it contains hummable and memorable melodies and sharp, crackling lyrics.

Twenty-two years ago, Chicago was shut out of the Tony Awards by A Chorus Line, which at the time was groundbreaking but after its long Broadway run, numerous national tours, and a flop of a movie now seems hackneyed. Despite a respectable run of 868 performances that featured not only Gwen Verdon but the great Chita Rivera (and, succeeding that duo later, Liza Minnelli and Ann Reinking), Chicago had been largely forgotten until an "Encores" concert in New York last year. Its cynical look at the press and judicial system simply did not fit in to American culture at that time. Today -- in the era of two Menendez brothers trials, two O.J. Simpson verdicts, and Court-TV's rising popularity -- it seems more timely and relevant than ever.

This became crystal clear when Billy Flynn, the city of Chicago's hotshot lawyer, first appeared on stage. The National Theatre audience gasped when actor Obba Babatundé strode through the orchestra to sing his first number, "All I Care About [Is Love]" -- for Babatundé bears an uncanny resemblance to Johnnie Cochran, a hotshot lawyer in his own right.

It's difficult to find something not to praise in this production. Ann Reinking's choreography recreates the style of Bob Fosse in a way that deserves hearty appreciation, for the art of the dance has been suffering in recent musicals. (For example, Paper Moon, reviewed favorably in these pages a few weeks ago, had serviceable but unremarkable choreography. This, unfortunately, represents a sad trend in American musical theatre, which was once driven by such creative choreographers as Agnes de Mille, Michael Kidd, Jerome Robbins, Michael Bennett -- and Bob Fosse.) Fosse's style -- a unique blend of modern dance, ballet, athleticism, and sexual energy -- is often attempted but seldom accurately rendered. It lends itself to injury -- not only D'Amboise, but Reinking herself has been sidelined in recent weeks -- and is perhaps the greatest challenge to a dancer. When it is done right -- as it is done here -- the Fosse style is eye-popping and jaw-dropping. "How do they do that?" comes to mind quite often.

Walter Bobbie, the director, has reconceived the show that builds upon Fosse's original concept and takes it to its logical conclusion. A simple set, which includes the orchestra on stage (a conceit that originated with Cabaret), forces most of the action onto a narrow apron, which makes that action so much more intimate to the audience. Costumes are limited to black, white, and shades of grey. The stage itself is largely black, with a few frames in gold and the glinting gold of the brass instruments complementing the blackness. Props are limited to a few chairs and feathered fans (don't ask, just go see for yourself). Lighting is emphasized, with golden and white pools creating focus and definition.

In its original incarnation, Chicago was billed as "A Musical Vaudeville." Today it bills itself as "The Drop-Dead Broadway Musical." Both are true. Structurally, the play is a series of vaudeville-type numbers, introduced by various characters in the style of a vaudeville emcee. These numbers, however, advance the plot and define the characters as effectively as any written by Rodgers and Hammerstein or Stephen Sondheim.

In a nutshell, the plot is this: Chorus-girl Roxie Hart shoots and kills her boyfriend, expecting her Casper Milquetoast husband to take the rap. Instead, she goes to jail and hires Billy Flynn as her attorney, who promises to manipulate the media and the jury to obtain a "not guilty" verdict. Then, as a celebrity murderess, she can go on tour as a -- you guessed it -- vaudeville star. Interacting with Roxie is Velma Kelly (Jasmine Guy), another murderess who has hired Billy and expects the same result. The predatory press itself plays a major role, showing us that not much has changed between 1927 and 1997.

So many performers stand out it is hard to single them out. Carol Woods is at her throaty best as Matron "Mama" Morton, the jail keeper. M.E. Spencer is cloyingly pollyannish as reporter Mary Sunshine. And Ron Orbach is practically invisible -- believe me, that's good -- as Roxie's sad-sack husband, Amos, who does a star turn himself in the amusing number, "Mister Cellophane."

Chicago is not a family musical. It contains adult themes and rough language. It is also a historical landmark of American musical theatre. No one who loves musical theatre can afford to miss Chicago.
Trivia tidbit: the real-life Chicago murder case on which the musical is based (also the basis for the 1942 Ginger Rogers movie Roxie Hart) was covered by a "girl reporter" named Ione Quinby, who later in life was an agony-aunt columnist for The Milwaukee Journal, writing as Ione Quinby Griggs or, simply, "Mrs. Griggs." Whether her choice of a 50-year career as a staple of the back page of the Journal's "Green Sheet" was inspired by the character of "Mary Sunshine" is not known to me.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Remembering Adolph Green at 100

A report from NPR's Jeff Lunden today on "All Things Considered" recalls that today marks the 100th birthday of Broadway lyricist and Hollywood screenwriter Adolph Green, whose works include On the Town, Wonderful Town, Bells Are Ringing, Singing in the Rain, The Bandwagon, and about half of the 1954 version of Peter Pan.  That last show will be presented on NBC-TV this coming Thursday as Peter Pan Live!

The 1954 Peter Pan had one set of songs by composer Mark Charlap and lyricist Carolyn Leigh, which included "I've Got to Crow," "I'm Flying," and "I Won't Grow Up," among others.  (The use of first-person nominative in those song titles must indicate something about the character of Peter Pan's embedded egoism.)

Along with his lyric-writing partner, Betty Comden, and composer Jule Styne, Green contributed a number of songs to Peter Pan, including "Wendy," "Ugg-a-Wugg," "Distant Melody," and the haunting "Neverland," sung in the clip below by Mary Martin in a kinescope of the 1955 live NBC-TV production.  (Kathleen Nolan appears as Wendy Darling in this production, which was directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins.)

In the rare clip below, from a 1957 broadcast on the Dumont network of Art Ford's Greenwich Village Party, Comden and Green sing their duet from On the Town, "I Get Carried Away." Art Ford reminds his viewers that Comden and Green had worked with Judy Holliday in a nightclub act in the 1940s called The Revuers, which led to their collaboration with Leonard Bernstein on On the Town, and that Holliday was then starring in their latest collaboration (with Jule Styne), Bells Are Ringing.

After Green sets up the number, it begins at the 3:30 mark on the video.

Another snippet of Comden and Green and performers can be seen in this compilation of songs from the 1985 Follies in Concert.  They sing "Rain on the Roof" beginning at 2:00 (and, sadly, ending at 2:10).  The video clip also includes the late Elaine Stritch singing "Broadway Baby" and Adolph Green's wife, Phyllis Newman, as part of the ensemble on "Who's That Woman?" as well as Carol Burnett proclaiming "I'm Still Here" -- along with leading players Barbara Cook, George Hearn, Mandy Patinkin, and Lee Remick.

A look at Adolph Green's credits on IBDB shows how prolific an artist he was. In addition to the shows already mentioned, he contributed either book or lyrics (or, sometimes, both) to Billion Dollar Baby, with David Burns and Helen Gallagher (1945), Two on the Aisle, with Bert Lahr and Dolores Gray (1951), Say, Darling (1958), A Party with Betty Comden & Adolph Green (1958 and 1977), Do Re Mi, with Phil Silvers and Nancy Walker (1960), Subways Are for Sleeping, with Carol Lawrence and Sydney Chaplin (1961), Fade Out-Fade In, with Carol Burnett and Jack Cassidy (1964), Hallelujah, Baby!, with Leslie Uggams (1967), Applause, with Lauren Bacall and Len Cariou (1970), Lorelei, with Carol Channing (1974), On the Twentieth Century, with Imogene Coca, John Cullum, Madeline Kahn, and Kevin Kline (1978), A Doll's Life, with what seems like the cast of Sweeney Todd -- George Hearn, Betsy Joslyn, and Edmund Lyndeck (1982), and The Will Rogers Follies, with Keith Carradine, Dee Hoty, and the voice of Gregory Peck (1991).

The list of Adolph Green's collaborators could itself be a book about the history of the musical theatre:  George Abbott, Lee Adams, Richard Bissell, Abe Burrows, Jerome Chodorov, Cy Coleman, William and Jean Eckart, Lehman Engel, Ron Field, Joseph A. Fields, Bob Fosse, Paul Gemignani, Garson Kanin, Michael Kidd, Arthur Laurents, David Merrick, Harold Prince, Burt Shevelove, Irene Sharaff, Oliver Smith, Peter Stone, Charles Strouse, Tommy Tune, Robin Wagner, and Freddie Wittop -- to name just a few.

Considering that Peter Pan Live! goes on the air this week, that there is a current revival of On the Town on Broadway, and the first full Broadway revival of On the Twentieth Century opens early next year, Adolph Green is having a pretty good season for a centenarian who has been dead for twelve years.

Monday, December 01, 2014

'Big Stone Gap' Cast and Author Visit the Virginia Film Festival

Ashley Judd, Adriana Trigiani, and Terry McAuliffe
Last month in Charlottesville, the director and screenwriter of Big Stone Gap (based on her own novel), Adriana Trigiani, brought along several cast members to the Virginia Film Festival for a screening of the movie, which was produced in its namesake town in Wise County.

Just before the screening at the Paramount Theater on the downtown mall, Trigiani and the cast spoke at a press conference about the making of the film, the hospitality of the town's 5,600 residents, and the value of producing an independent film in Virginia.

The actors who participated in the press conference were Erika Coleman, Jenna Elfman, Bridget Gabbe, Jasmine Guy, Ashley Judd, Patrick Wilson, and Paul Wilson. Not present were additional cast members Whoopi Goldberg, John Benjamin Hickey, Judith Ivey, Jane Krakowski, Anthony LaPaglia, and Chris Sarandon, among others (including a large number of non-professional local actors from Southwest Virginia who appear in the film).

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe made a surprise appearance at the end of the presser and posed for photos with the cast.  He used the opportunity to tout Virginia's film industry and the tax credits and other subsidies available to film makers.  (McAuliffe's comments to local news media about the Virginia film industry are reported here.)

A video recording of the entire press conference, including Governor McAuliffe's interactions with the cast members, is below.

During the press conference, Trigiani reveals that she originally conceived of the story as a screenplay but decided first to put it in novel form and then adapt it as a film. She also notes that she has known actress Jasmine Guy since they both worked on the TV series, A Different World, a spinoff from The Cosby Show. (Guy played Whitley Gilbert on the show; Trigiani worked on the writing staff along with executive consultant Bill Cosby and Kadeem Hardison.)

My understanding is that Big Stone Gap did not have a distributor at the time of its world premiere at the 2014 Virginia Film Festival. 

The press conference and screening of Big Stone Gap took place on Thursday, November 6, 2014.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Look Back at the Making of the First 'Peter Pan' Movie (1924)

Peter Pan Live NBC Christopher Walken Minnie DriverWith the much-hyped television broadcast of Peter Pan Live!, starring Allison Williams, Minnie Driver, and Christopher Walken, coming up on Thursday, December 4, on NBC, it seems worthwhile to look back on other versions of the classic J.M. Barrie work.  (On Twitter, the show is being promoted as #PeterPanLive.)  This production is a follow-up to last December's virally successful The Sound of Music Live! The cast also includes Broadway veterans Christian Borle and Kelli O'Hara and (relative) newcomers Taylor Louderman, Jake Lucas, and John Allyn as the Darling family.

I have seen Sandy Duncan on stage as Peter Pan and Mary Martin on TV, as well as the 1953 Disney animated production with Bobby Driscoll voicing Peter.  I missed Mia Farrow and Cathy Rigby in the role but, for my money, Jeremy Sumpter was the most heatedly erotic Peter in the movies, but most audiences are not looking for that particular quality in what is usually intended as a children's story.

The first movie presentation of Peter Pan was released in 1924 by Paramount.  It was produced by Adolph Zukor and directed by Herbert Brenon.  Sir James M. Barrie was involved in the project and approved of the casting although -- as the anecdotes recounted below note -- his original screenplay was set aside for one credited to Willis Goldbeck.  The film was shot by renowned cinematographer James Wong Howe.

Stewart Stern Rebel without a Cause James DeanIn 2007,  screenwriter Stewart Stern (Oscar-nominated for Rebel Without a Cause and an Emmy winner for Sybil) appeared at the Virginia Film Festival, where in addition to a shot-by-shot workshop of Rebel Without a Cause he offered opening remarks at a screening of the 1924 Peter Pan.

Stern, then 85 years old, recalls the casting process that resulted in the choice of Betty Bronson as the first screen Peter but he also describes his own experiences in seeing Eva Le Gallienne and Elsa Lanchester on stage as Peter, and the personal touches he received not just from those actresses but also from J.M. Barrie himself.

Here is video of screenwriter Stewart Stern, speaking at the Paramount Theater in downtown Charlottesville on November 3, 2007.  Part I offers some anecdotes about Barrie and the first stage production of Peter Pan and the casting of Bronson in the title role.  (Partial transcript follows the video clip.)

Stewart Stern on Peter Pan - Part I

It always begins with a writer. Sir James Matthew Barrie, who wrote Peter Pan, was a very small Scotsman, barely taller than a child, with a very large head, deep melancholy eyes, a mustache to cover his shyness, and a pipe that made everyone cough.

He rarely smiled but he could wiggle his ears and he mainly trusted children and certain Newfoundland dogs of his acquaintance, whom he would one day roll up into Nana. There were those five little boys in Kensington Gardens whom he fell in love with, and the Davies boys, whom he wisely treated as his superiors, and grew so close to, that in a way he stole them, even as Peter Pan stole the Darling children, and they made up Peter's story together.

It was born as a game they played at Barrie's country house, and it just kept making itself up as he and his boys played it – sometimes this way, sometimes that way – and that's how Barrie put it on the stage and that's why it always keeps changing. That's the character of Peter, too: he won't stand still, never remembers what he did last, and he's always finding new adventures to hide his loneliness inside.

During rehearsals, Barrie would sit huddled in the dark of the Duke of York's Theatre in London, his great coat and bowler hat, watching the children with envy as they practiced flying around the stage, until one days someone asked him what the matter was. He said, “I would very much like to fly, too!”

So, they hoisted him up in the magical arrangement that helps you do it, and flew him around the stage in absolute ecstasy, bowler hat, pipe, greatcoat and all, twinkling like a firefly, until they finally sat him down.

Barrie's favorite critic on opening night was a little boy whom he'd taken to the theatre. And he asked him, what part of it did you like best, when the final curtain came down. And the little boy said, “Oh, the part I liked best was tearing up my program into little bits and throwing them down on the people!” And of all the reviews his play received, Barrie liked that one the most.

In about 1920, my uncle, Adolph Zukor, who started Paramount Pictures, decided to make the first movie of Peter Pan. He had to find the perfect Peter to please Mr. Barrie, so a nationwide search began all across America.

Betty Bronson as Peter Pan silent movies
Betty Bronson as Peter Pan
Countless screen tests were made and the best ones were taken to London on an ocean liner by the movie's director, Mr. Herbert Brenon, and by another uncle of mine, Mr. Albert Kaufman, who was Uncle Adolph's studio manager. These men would show the tests to Barrie for him to choose his favorite, and among the candidates was a tiny, 17-year-old girl from New Jersey who had come to Hollywood to break into movies and who called herself Betty Bronson. She banged on every door at Paramount Studios until Mr. Brenon agreed to see her, and she told him that she was born to play Peter, she had to pay Peter, she would play Peter, and so Mr. Brenon had no choice but to make a test.

In the London screening room, the two Americans unreeled those tests for Barrie, day after day, and to break up a long afternoon, Barrie invited them to his flat, overlooking the River Thames, for tea.

They were awed to be at the home of such a famous man, a man great enough to be knighted by the king. Barrie left his guests in the big inglenook by the fire, where he wrote, to go and see about the tea. But while they waited in their straight-back chairs, saying very little, for the whistle at the kettle to come from the kitchen, there was such a long, alarming silence, that they went exploring through the flat, and they finally found Barrie frozen at the kitchen door with his shoes in his hands and his face a mask of terrible guilt. “It's housekeeper's day off,” Barrie said, “and I'm not allowed in the kitchen. Mrs. Porter absolutely forbids me to set foot in it.”

Uncle Al said, “Well, I'll go in. I'll make the tea.”

But Barrie said, “No, no, no, no. She'll be able to tell. She puts things around I have to move out of the way and that gives her hints.”

So that was it for tea.

The very next day, a telegram reached Uncle Adolph's desk in New York. It was from London. “Betty Bronson chosen to play the role of Peter Pan. Signed, Barrie.”

In part two of the video from the Virginia Film Festival, Stern describes the magic of Eva Le Gallienne as Peter Pan (in a production she also directed), and the fright that Elsa Lanchester brought to the role. He describes his own two degrees of separation from Sir James Barrie and his particular attachment to thimbles. (Partial transcript follows the video.)

Stewart Stern on Peter Pan - Part II

The film was a huge success and many of the effects in it – the great broom sweeping the fairies away, Captain Hook's Jolly Roger rising up off the mermaids' lagoon and flying the children home – were all Barrie's own ideas for the movie version, special effects way before their time. And it's a wonderful script to read. It's a complete screenplay and filled with fancy but they decided, no, they wouldn't use it – just this and that of it. And so the movie has a more theatrical look than what might have happened if Barrie had had his screenplay used.

Like all very old children who never grew up – this isn't a hook, by the way, it's to do Charlie Chaplin imitations and it's also a reminder that I'm 85, so I'm only half young – anyway, I have loved Peter Pan my whole life. My first Peter Pan when I was little was the great Eva Le Gallienne. She gave special children matinees at the old Civic Repertory Theatre in New York at 11 o'clock Saturday mornings, and then she went on in the rest of the day to play grown-up roles in the afternoon and evening, in plays like Camille, Romeo & Juliet, and Ibsen's Ghosts, and the next morning she was back being Peter Pan.

But they weren't half as exciting as Peter Pan, those other plays, those grown-up plays. So Saturday after Saturday, my mother moved us up to the cheaper and cheaper seats, up to the tip-tip-top of the theatre, where the poorest children sat on benches that only cost 50 cents.
Sitting on those hard seats, miles above the people, we had the best thrill of anyone in the theatre because at the end, Peter Pan flew, not just over the audience way down there but above the balconies that were below us – there were two that were below us, and then the audience down there – but all the way up here, she touched our hands as we leaned out over the railing and shouted good-bye as she flew past us and then zoomed down to the stage. It was the most thrilling thing I've ever seen in my life and it still stays with me.

Screenwriter Stewart Stern Virginia Film Festival 2007
Stewart Stern in Charlottesville, Nov. 3, 2007
All children who saw Peter Pan wanted to fly. Until I was ten, I dreamed of flying out my window so many times that one morning I found my bare footprints in the snow on my window sill facing out over New York City, eight floors up. The next my dad had metal guards attached to the window. I could never fly again.
I pleaded with my mom to make me a Peter Pan costume and I wore it everywhere except to school. I'd come home, climb onto my book case in my Peter Pan suit, doing my homework with Peter's rubber dagger stuck in my teeth in case Hook came into the room.

And one day, on Uncle Adolph's golf course, I was up in my usual tree, dressed as Peter and tootling on my pipes, when my father came along with a man I didn't know who had an English accent and wore knickerbockers. When he heard my tootling, as he was about to hit the ball, he said, “Good lord! That's the 'Pirate Song' from Peter Pan. What's it doing in that tree?”

My dad said, “It's just Peter, otherwise known as my son.”

The man peered through the leaves until he found me, and we stared at each other for one long meaningful moment, and I won.

He said, “By George, it is Peter Pan, the real one! Bicarbonate of soda, it is!”

That man with the accent turned out to be Sir William Wiseman, a friend of Barrie's, and a few weeks later a package came in the mail from London, a first edition of Peter Pan and Wendy autographed “To Stewart Stern, kind regards, from J.M. Barrie.”

I wished he had sent me a thimble in it, that silver thing you wear on your finger when you sew a button on, that Peter called a kiss.

My letters from Eva Le Gallienne all had thimbles in them. She'd write, “Bless you, my dear, I send you a very nice thimble.” And my letter from Betty Bronson had thimbles in it, too.

But not Elsa Lanchester's, who came down her flying wire like a black widow spider after its prey and acted the whole part – and she told me this – pretending to be Hitler at the age of 6. Children shook when she came on and they rushed to Captain Hook to comfort them – and Captain Hook was Charles Laughton, her husband.

Stewart Stern is still alive at the age of 92. No doubt, if he watches Peter Pan Live! next Thursday, his TV viewing experience will be warmed by his childhood memories of Peter Pan and the actresses who played him.