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Sunday, December 22, 2013


Again this is not a Sondheim "joint" (to borrow a term from Spike Lee), as he did not write either the book or the music. It was the second Broadway project he got involved in, after "West Side Story," at the urging of Hammerstein. (Interesting that he got started as a lyricist rather than a composer, but that's another discussion.)

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the musical is that it was based on largely real events --- it was adapted from Gypsy Rose Lee's autobiography. Gypsy was a stripper (in burlesque dance) who became an international celebrity and befriended other celebrities such as Picasso, Miro, Chagall, etc. Apparently, her real life is even messier than the plot of the musical. I have suspected it for a while now: Life does not imitate art. Life is weirder and wilder than art.

Gypsy Rose Lee's story may also confirm another suspicion of mine: Today's American society (and perhaps other places as well) is a lot more morally puritanical than certain previous era. It may not be a bad thing. It may be associated with rising status of women more than anything else. I'm the last person to oppose feminism, but it doesn't change the fact that rising feminism could, in certain context, curb a loose and open sexual attitude (think Prohibition). I do not agree with those (mostly men) who claim that women are "naturally" or "biologically" more monogamous than men. Rather, women are more invested in monogamy than men are in most of history.

Gypsy hit the height of her (striptease) career in the 1930s. Gypsy the musical was written and produced in 1950s. In 2010s, such a show would never get on stage. Whether it's progress or regression, I'm in no position to say.

The real Gypsy

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Man in a Case

Supposedly this relatively short show (clocking in at slightly over an hour) is an experimental multimedia performance involving onstage narration, a bit of acting, a bit of music and dancing, some video screen juxtaposition, and sound and light effects. It seems to me, however, essentially telling stories with some gestures and props.

The stories it tells are two from Chekhov: Man in a Case and About Love. The first is about a Greek teacher at a small town school who is terrified. He follows rules and obeys authority with shuddering deference. He never puts half a toes out of line. At night he huddles in bed with fear of the world and people. For a brief moment he was on the brink of falling in love with a vibrant laughing young woman, but in the end the shock of relationship is too much to bear.

The second story tells about a university-educated farmer stuck in his boring monotonous life. He falls in love with a married woman in town and becomes a friend of the family. They are both too timid to admit their attractions until the moment she moves away with her husband and children. And they never see each other again.

The legendary Mikhail Baryshnikov plays the lead roles in both. At 63 he looks lean and sharp and entirely at ease as an actor. Although he does not dance in the show --- minus a minute or two of improvised jazzy twists in the middle to satisfy the audience who have come specifically to see him --- he moves with grace and precision. The show reaches its climax with a "dance" on the floor between the two unconsumated lovers that is projected onto a screen. It was breathtaking.

If I had seen it or read the stories even ten years ago, I would not have been moved as much as I am now. Perhaps ten years from now I will be moved even more. They are about self-inflicted failures and paralysis. "Look at you pathetic lot," Chekhov seems to say with a malicious smirk, "Look how you've ruined your own hope and happiness. Your lives are so boring and full of regret, and you have no one to blame but your own laziness, cowardice, and inaction."

Coming out of the theater I almost want to jump on a plane and fly to ... wherever, to plunge into adventures, to sleep with strangers, to feel more acutely alive. Of course it is not so simple. Thrashing around aimlessly for drama or a moment's adrenaline release is marginally more alive, perhaps, than the mundane middle-aged life locked in habits and routines and outdated rules. How do we be alive? How do we live? Ah the answer is not easy. 

The qualities that paralyze Belikov, the man in a case, and the couple in the second story are so pervasive that I see them in people all around me, even in myself, lots in myself. I feel shaken and stirred. It makes me want to change and embrace life with more urgency, exactly how to do that I don't know.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Sondheim documentary

Just heard about HBO's documentary "Six by Sondheim" to be aired soon. I have to remember to get the DVD when it comes out.

It is kind of funny that Sondheim did not start a serious cohabitative relationship until he was 60 years old, even though Bobby made up his mind to be alive at 35 and Sondheim himself was in his 30s when he wrote it.

To be alive at the same time as Stephen Sondheim is like to live in the same era as Shakespeare. It's not a stretch to feel so damned fortunate. He is undeniably the best of his time. The one and only. Hands down and all agree. Sort of like Michael Jordan.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

This is the first time I have seen a musical at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. It's really pretty awesome. The audience, me included, laughed all the way through the show.

The play is very typical farce. I'd love to learn how playwrights structure a farce so that different strands of subplot always end in a big blowout in the climax. According to the playbill, A Funny Thing ... was almost dead after it premiered in Washington, before going on Broadway, because they couldn't come up with a satisfying ending. Yet somehow they wrung an ending out of it just in time. Yet again real life can be more dramatic than drama.

This was done very early in Sondheim's career, right after he wrote the lyrics to "West Side Story." The work here is clearly more funny and less bittersweet than his later products. Crowd pleasing.

Thursday, December 5, 2013


终于把这套电视剧给邮购到手。网站上还警告说,这是 region 2 的原版芬兰碟,在 region 1 的美国影碟机放不出。我塞进电脑里一下就放出来了,还有好好的英文字幕!!!听着那熟悉而神奇的原声音乐,啊,浑身舒畅,汗毛倒立,真是太爽了!

第一集里有个配角在那里呱啦呱啦地讲电话,我听着就象瑞典话不象芬兰话,下一句他就自报姓名 Lundqvist,果然是瑞典人!这就是看了太多北欧影视的下场!(回头想想,大概芬兰人看瑞典人就是话痨吧。)

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