After we had our wonderful 25th silver anniversary celebration, I suddenly realized, now that Column 26 is at hand, it too calls for a celebration. Because we've been doing Column A for half a year! But I don't want to celebrate. Too much celebration induces nausea, and I hate nausea, because nausea can lead to throwing up (aka vomit, barf, hurling) and let me tell you, I would rather have pins inserted into my eyeballs than vomit (aka spewing, retching, spitting up). Whoever came up with the word "vomit" really did a good job in capturing the essence of the act. How did I end up with "vomit"??? Earthquakes, vomit, what the hell does this have to do with Stephen Sondheim? All this irrelevant blather is nauseating, isn't it? It makes you want to barf (upchuck, lose your lunch, puke), doesn't it?
Whew, aren't you glad we're off that topic? Are there no depths to which this column will not sink? Absolutely not. This column takes pride in how low it can sink. And frankly, anyone who doesn't like The Lower Depths is a butt cheek. That's right, you heard it here. A butt cheek. Can we all say this on the count of three. One, two, three: Butt cheek! Excellent, dear readers, I heard you loud and clear. What has happened to our decorum? What has happened to our dignity? Oh, well, you want dignity, go read Ken Mandelbread.
You know, I haven't quite figured out the theme of this column yet. I haven't quite figured out what the hell this column is about this week. That's what earthquakes do to you. They unnerve you. They throw you off-balance. Hence, we have gone from earthquakes to The Twilight Zone to vomit to butt cheeks. Ahhhhhhh. Now I see! Now I see the theme. What is it, you ask? And I reply: Fish!
Well, well, well. That's three wells, which look rather attractive together I think. Listen, you can't blame me for this column, you can blame the earthquake. My equilibrium is out of whack (aka wack). Out of whack. Can something be in whack? Doesn't something have to be in whack to go out of whack? Did the smart-ass who thought up "out of whack" give a tinker's damn about how stupid that saying is? And how about the person who made up "tinker's damn". Does the word "butt cheek" come to mind? Okay, dear readers, on the count of three. One, two, three: butt cheek! "Out of whack." "Tinker's damn." This way madness lies. You see, the whole damn equilibrium thing is out of kilter (a wholly unacceptable and stupid alternative to "out of whack"). All this because my pillow shifted. That is the cause of everything. Because if the pillow had been "just so" we probably wouldn't have had the earthquake, and the whole column thus far would of course have been about my close personal friend, Mr. Stephen Sondheim, just like it always is. So, blame it on the pillow. Or the bossa nova. Or Rio. I am now bereft of any further things to say in this section of the column. Let's just say that this part of the column is like the musical Big: No matter how much you rework it, it doesn't change. But enough about me.
That's right, dear readers, you heard it here. Through the hospitable auspices (say that quickly ten times) of Mr. Mark Bakalor, we're going to have a Real Live Real Chat with The Real A. Yes, we will finally meet and we'll be able to do "live" drivel as it's actually happening. This is very exciting and I hope each and every one of you dear readers will join in the fun. Anyone who doesn't, will of course be a butt cheek. Okay. One, two, three: Butt cheek. You can ask me anything you want, no holds barred. Except the figure four leg lock, which is just too painful. Of course that means that I can ask you anything I want, no holds barred. This live, in-person event will happen on March 19th at 6:30 p.m. Latecomers will not be seated until an appropriate break in the performance. We'll be serving cheese balls and ham chunks, and Girl Scout Cookies. I look forward to meeting all of you, or, as my grandfather would have said, what is it, fish?
The Real Live Chat will be held in the Stephen Sondheim Stage's live chat room.
Well, I think it's time to talk about one of my favorite Sondheim things. Yes, this will actually be about my close personal friend Mr. Stephen Sondheim. And my favorite Sondheim musical Follies. Since it is about to enjoy a new production at the Paper Mill Playhouse, this seemed like a good time to talk about it.
It is well known that the famous picture of Gloria Swanson (the only Norma Desmond in my book - you remember my book, don't you?) standing amidst the rubble of the demolished Roxy Theater, was an inspiration to the creators of Follies. And it did serve as a perfect metaphor for the rubble that our dreams can turn into. Rubble, crumbling, cracking facades, these are the recurring motifs of Follies. There has never been a musical like Follies and there probably never will be again. It's a one-off brilliant piece of theater and for me personally, the Broadway production was the finest I've ever seen. There has been much criticism levelled at James Goldman's book, but I'm not having any of it. It's a wonderfully crafted book, with vivid characters, biting humor and searing drama. Of course, if it were done today there wouldn't even be a book, it would all be "through-sung". Let me just say, before we continue, that I hate the phrase "through-sung". I would like to throttle the butt cheek who came up with that. All right, one, two, three: butt cheek! "Through-sung" is right up there with "day one". I hate "day one". These are the kinds of phrases that create serial killers. I'm convinced of this. Where was I? Oh, yeah, Follies.
Follies had so many indelible moments, it's hard to talk about without just recapitulating the entire show. Harold Prince and Michael Bennett's direction, and Bennett's choreography, were breathtaking, unique, and unforgettable. Prince had been leading up to this show ever since Cabaret, and his work here is an achievement of the highest order. Follies is a very complexly laid out show, and to keep it moving, to keep the audience focused and aware of who was who, what was the past and what was the present, well, let's just say he delivered the goods, and then some. Bennett's dances were fluid, exciting and one-of-a-kind, and his and Prince's work was totally seamless. I don't think A Chorus Line would ever have existed if Follies hadn't paved the way. Boris Aronson's set fit the show like a glove. It enabled Prince and Bennett to get from past to present, from fantasy to reality with fluidity and tremendous style. Florence Klotz' costumes were mind boggling, and the lighting of Tharon Musser was and is the best I've ever seen on Broadway (or anywhere else). I had the incredible good fortune of having coffee one night with Ms. Musser, and I told her that I thought her work on Follies was genius, and I proceeded to tell her I knew it was genious the minute the first light cue hit. I then recounted to her what the first light cue was (the stage in darkness, lights - like flashbulbs - go off at the audience, which momentarily "blinds" the eye, and when you finally focus you see the ghost of a showgirl at the top of a high platform (it is hard to describe, but really an astonishing effect). She was so amazed that I could recount to her in such detail the effect that that had on me, that she teared up. Lighting designers rarely get the kind of glory that they deserve, and no one deserves it more than Tharon Musser.
The cast was actually perfect. I have never seen a better cast show. Everyone, down to the last showgirl was absolutely "right". Alexis Smith was wonderful as Phyllis, a very difficult role, especially given some of the dialogue she has to say, some of which is not very audience friendly (to wit, the "panties" line). She looked great (her legs went on forever), she sang fine, and she danced well, too. Gene Nelson was terrific as Buddy, and got every ounce of pathos out of the part. His dance during The Right Girl was one of the most exciting things I've ever seen. John McMartin as Ben, was perfect, too. His breakdown during Live, Laugh, Love was so real, that the audience wasn't sure if it was the character or the actor forgetting the lyrics. Yvonne de Carlo, Ethel Shutta (her Broadway Baby will never be topped, I don't care who does it), everyone, was just magical. I've saved Dorothy Collins for last. Dorothy Collins was a "girl singer" on the tremendously popular 50s tv show Your Hit Parade. Nothing, and I mean nothing, could have prepared me for the performance that she gave as Sally. She always had a glorious voice, so it's not a shock that she sings her songs so beautifully (again, definitively, in my book). It was the subtlety, the nuance, the heartbreak she brought to the part that was the shock. Who knew? I must say I got teary eyed several times in the show, and it was always because of something Dorothy Collins did.
Which brings us, of course, to the score. Prior to my seeing the show, I had bought the cast album, which, at the time, I had no idea was truncated. Well, I wore out one copy of the record within a week, and had to go purchase another. From the first bars of music I knew this was going to be one of the great scores of all time. And it did not disappoint. Every single number is essential Sondheim. The way in which he plumbs the depths of these characters is astonishing. People (especially critics) have always accused Sondheim of being cold and analytical and brittle. But Follies gives the lie to that argument every step of the way. It is gut-wrenchingly heartfelt. It is a score filled with great musical numbers, from Don't Look At Me, The Road You Didn't Take (in my opinion one of the greatest songs Sondheim has ever written), In Buddy's Eyes, Too Many Mornings, Losing My Mind, well, it just boggles the mind (no mean feat - have you ever had your mind "boggled"??? Have you ever tried to unboggle it - whew). It is one of Sondheim's greatest creations, maybe his greatest. I mean, the guy's still alive, we can't be saying it's the "greatest" when the "greatest" might be still to come. Which boggles the mind, doesn't it?
I don't know what this Paper Mill production will be like, and frankly I'm afraid to see it. I've seen Follies twice since the original production, and with lesser talents (both cast-wise and production-wise) the show just doesn't work the way it should. There. That was a really long thing all about Stephen Sondheim and his show Follies. And now, back to the pointless drivel.
This week's what if will make the naysayers happy. What if Stephen Sondheim (yes, you heard it here - this whole damn column is about Stephen Sondheim - pretty soon those naysayers will be yeasayers, perish the thought - why did I put this whole thing in parentheses, I could have made five sentences out of it and now I'll bet you've totally forgotten what I was saying prior to the parenthesis so what was the point of the damn parenthesis anyway???) yes, what if Stephen Sondheim had written The Life? And it goes something like this (to the tune of, what else, Into The Woods):
Into the whores,
Ah, it's a beautiful day, the birds are outside singing the score to Whoop Up (how do they even know that score? It's so obscure) and I'm sitting on my couch like so much fish. That is because I had a dinner party last night. There were four of us, and as usual I made enough food for ten. After the guests left, I, of course, had to eat just a little more food, because I wasn't quite uncomfortable enough. Which meant that I had to get up quite early and go jogging to maintain my svelte appearance. "Svelte" is an especially stupid word, don't you think? So, I jogged, and now I sit here panting for dear life, and trying to type coherent sentences and spel correctly. Butt eye nehver hav two wurree abowt speleng airors becuz aye hav a spehl chequer. Itt werks reelee well, to, duznt itt?
There. In between the time I finished the last paragraph and began this one, I have had a Diet Coke and now I feel much better. Oh, by the way, I just got a nice e-mail. Here it is.
Dear Real A: Congratulations on your half a year anniversary. I've never read your column, but my friend Carol Channing reads it every week and she told me I must drop you a line. She says I cannot be out of the loop as it were, and let all those other composer/ lyricists write to you. After all, there is no tune like a show tune, and who knows that better than I? I write show tunes you know. The show tune is alive and well right here with Jerry Herman. I don't like these new musicals. They have too much recitative, they just go on and on and on and no one ever shuts up. I like when the star just comes out and sings at you. A nice bouncy "c", a ballad with a tune you can hum, I mean, is it a crime to write that kind of show anymore? And where are the stars? Wouldn't Side Show have been much more interesting with Carol Channing and Lauren Bacall as the Hilton Sisters? They are perfect for those roles. Just imagine those two ladies joined at the hip. And all those low notes. It would have been fabulous. I could have written them some real showstoppers. I would have called it Hello, Daisy! Hello, Violet! Oh, what might have been. Anyway, good luck to you in the future. I don't intend to read your column because I'm just too busy writing show tunes. That is what I do. For example, I wrote this lyric for you (to the tune of my fabulous show tune, We Need A Little Christmas, from my fabulous show Mame):
Roll out the column,
Have I said that I adore your letters? Especially after jogging, when I can sit on my couch like so much fish and wheeze and cough. Your letters have restorative powers, they do, they really do, yes, they do. Gee, I sounded just like Carol Channing there for a minute, didn't I? Well, as the riders of horses are fond of saying, tally ho! Why they are fond of saying this is beyond me, of course. Tally ho!
Tiffany wrote to tell me that she didn't really have anything to say, but that she just enjoys writing me. This is the right attitude, Tiffany! I mean, I write an entire column and have nothing to say! I love getting your letters, so don't stop. Did you all know that Tiffany is a physics Major. Is that as good as a physics Colonel? All right. Here we have the word "Colonel". Pronounce-athon please. Everyone... one, two, three... Colonel! I'll bet you all said "kernel" didn't you? I didn't. I said kolonell. If someone is stupid enough to spell "colonel" "colonel" then I'm going to be stupid enough to pronounce it that way. What kind of a person would spell kernel colonel? Does the word "butt cheek" sound familiar? Okay - one, two, three: butt cheek! Tiffany also saw a Mountain Dew commercial which used the song Tonight from West Side Story, which just happens to be by this site's very own Stephen Sondheim (with a teeny assist from Leonard Bernstein, but this isn't his site so the hell with him).
Emily would like to know if my former Houseguest was one of the following: relative, in-law, significant other, not-so-significant other, Socks the Cat, bigger or smaller than a breadbox, or an actual breadbox. My former Houseguest was definitely not Socks the Cat, as The Real A is Real Allergic to cats (the animal not the musical). I get red puffy eyes, I sneeze and my throat gets scratchy. You can't "itch" a scratchy throat so you're stuck with it. Actually, my former Houseguest was none of the above, with the possible exception of the breadbox.
William F. Orr (not William G. Orr or William R. Orr) contributes this coprophiliac joke (you didn't think we would have an entire column without at least one, did you dear readers?): What is a coprophiliac's favorite square dance song? Skip To The Lou, My Darling. Good one.
Spencer asks me to please explain the constant "what is it, fish" references. Rather than dredge up the grandpa story, go back and read Column 21. It will give you the whole story, but whether it will make sense to you is a whole other kettle of what is it, fish.
Yves wrote to say that he "got" the U.N. Owen reference in last week's column, because he played Anthony Marston in Agatha Christie's mind boggling play Ten Little Indians (from whence U.N. Owen came). And Yves got his first "A" on a composition in College French. Bon.
Jon (I can't keep track of them anymore) wants to know what's up with the cd reissues of Company and A Little Night Music. What is up is that Sony has now announced release dates for these titles on four separate occasions, none of which happened. I think it's June, but it could be September. The year is another story.
Erzulie gives "snaps" to Kander and Ebb because they are the only ones who wrote and didn't think the column should be about them.
Matt asks if I will be doing the live chat with The Real A in the prone position. Only if everyone is in the prone position. I simply can't be the only one prone, because then I will be Prone Alone and I hate that.
Phil would like to know why high schools insist on mounting terrible productions of Into The Woods. Since I have never seen a terrible high school production of said show, I don't really have an answer. Phil has seen three such productions, which leads me to believe that they're doing these terrible productions to personally annoy Phil.
Brian is shocked and disappointed that I raved about Titanic (the movie not the musical). I was also shocked and disappointed that I liked it, but I did, so what can I do? I know it's not well written, and I know the two lead kids get all treacly, but somehow it just worked and kept me involved.
Jon B. notes that with the revivals of The Sound of Music, Cabaret, and The Diary of Anne Frank, that it seems to be Springtime for Hitler on Broadway. And may I add, with The Lion King and Cats, Broadway is a zoo.
Elan correctly points out that I neglected to mention an important person who was a major part of the Jack Benny radio and tv family of regulars: His wife, Mary Livingston. Shame on me. Take me in the corner and Turpin me.
You, dear readers, are too much. I thought I had a real corker, a real stumper, something that was just too obscure to guess. Well, I was right and wrong. No one guessed my answer, but as it turns out there were two other possible answers! Who knew? The question was, who played a romantic role in a Sondheim show and a world famous transsexual. George Hearn was not a correct answer because Zaza is a fictional character. My answer was John Hansen, who played Hero in the 1972 Broadway revival of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, and who also played Christine Jorgensen in the film The Christine Jorgensen Story (yes, I saw it). That should have been the end of that, and yet it wasn't. Because, get this... Mandy Patinkin who played Georges also played Christine Jorgensen in a play called The Knife. What are the odds of this happening??? And then, Anthony Perkins played Charles (in Evening Primrose) and famous tennis transsexual Renee Richards. This is way too many transsexual Sondheim connections in my book (Chapter 12 - Sondheim and His Transsexual Connections).
This week's trivia question: When Alain Resnais was shooting Stavisky, what Sondheim score would he play on the set, to establish the mood?
Trivia answers, questions, comments...
Until next week, I am, as I ever was, and ever shall be...