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Monday, June 30, 2014

Six by Sondheim

James Lepine strung together clips and photographs and interviews with six of his songs. I frowned, a little, at the choice of "Send in the Clown." Perhaps it's my snobbery. Certainly those are not six of MY favorite Sondheim songs. One could argue that the selection is intended to be biographical, not "greatest hits," but then Send in the Clown still does not fit.

The joy is seeing old reels of the original casts of Gypsy and Sunday in the Park and Company and even a black-and-white clip of West Side Story, and young Sondheim playing the piano and singing his own songs. (The film with him directing the original recording of Company was particularly moving.) And of course his interviews over the years. One never gets tired of listening to him talk.

The documentary is almost entirely devoted to his work, with mere scraps of his personal life here and there. A viewer without previous knowledge of Sondheim's biography would probably feel lost or confused. A bit coy, I thought, which is not his style.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Private Lives (STC)

Bianca Amato and James Waterston

Saw it at Shakespeare Theatre Company in town today. I love it. Indeed I prefer it to "The Important of Being Earnest," which is more famous but a bit too classically farcical for me. This, oh, this oozes irony! Such merciless depiction of --- no, attack on --- romantic relationships and marriage.

I have a weakness for this particular brand of cynicism, perhaps because of an early inoculation with Maugham's stories. Looking back, perhaps chick lit would have been more suitable brain food for a girl in puberty, but that's all too late now. Anyway, the attitude might be bred in a specific time and place, namely early twentieth century Britain. Maugham, Noel Coward, Terence Rattigan, preceded by Wilde, more or less belong to the same group. Shaw belonged to the same period and also had the biting wit, but his concerns were rather quite different (because he was not homosexual?).

"Private Lives" is claustrophobic, and that is Coward's point about monogamous marriage. Indeed a passionate, smothering, consuming great love cannot survive such an institution, as anyone who has been married for love knows. I think we can all recognize and identify with the "concentrated" study of a marriage.

Before it started I saw in the playbill that the lead actor was named James Waterston. I wondered about his relation with Sam Waterston. The moment he came out I laughed. There was no mistaken that nose and that profile. He had to be the son.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Julius Caesar @ Folger

Funny. Just a few weeks ago I wondered out loud whether the sudden surge of revivals of Coriolanus suggests possible revivals of Julius Caesar. Yesterday I received a brochure from Folger that it will be the opening play for the next (14-15) season. Again directed by their resident director Robert Richmond.

I look forward to seeing it.

Meanwhile, Richard III is getting hot. Folger and Broadway (starring Mark Rylance) both had a revival last season. Mark Freeman is doing it this summer at the West End. OK maybe Richard III is far more frequently revived than Coriolanus or Julius Caesar. I see a growing interest in the historical plays, heavy with political elements, in recent Shakespeare productions. Just another testament of how relevant he remains in the way we live now.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Bridge

I've been binge-watching "The Bridge" season 1. It is fantastic! I love how it toys with social issues and our expectations. So good. In comparison American TV is complete crap. Only early seasons of Law and Order and Law and Order: Criminal Intent were not crap, the rest is all crap crap crap, from plotting to character to social context. All crap.


Teachout's biography of Duke Ellington still leaves many questions unanswered at least for me, but it is a good overview of what Ellington did in his career. Well, most of what he did was touring with his constantly churning, frequently dysfunctional, often brilliant and sometimes lackluster band.

I am of course interested in his psychology as a person who was simultaneously irresistible and unknowable, but unfortunately Teachout didn't provide a lot of analysis (speculation?) in this area. Every couple of chapters Teachout would gripe about how Ellington stole credit for music written by his band members (including an entire chapter about how Billy Strayhorn was wronged by not only Duke but also critics and historians) or how he mistreated women in his life. He does not, however, provide any explanation on why Ellington was able to do these things without losing their attachment to him.

For example, one could argue that Strayhorn remained in Duke's shadow because of his lack of marketability as a homosexual, but by all account Strayhorn did not act as if he was ashamed of his sexuality and never pretended to be straight. He could have stayed in others' shadows if he were so inclined. Why did he stick with Duke's band for most of his life and watch Duke take credit for his own work? Why did many others in the band? Band members trickled (or stormed) in and out over the five decades, some left in a rage and struck out on their own. Some came back. (Johnny Hodges was an example of success in both places.) I can believe that Strayhorn grew to resent Duke's credit-hogging of his work, but he nevertheless drifted back into Duke's fold until his (Strayhorn's) death. They were jazz musicians for god's sake, by nature and definition unabashed individualists. They are notoriously harder to herd than cats!

The same with women. It's not like Ellington's major long-term relationships were with weak, submissive women. His first love and only wife slashed his face with a razor. Another of his long-term partner Evie had a fiery temper. None of them seemed like spineless voiceless victims. Every few chapters, Teachout would indignantly remind the reader that Ellington refused to give the title of Mrs. Ellginton to women in his life. Yet most of them did not leave him. Why? What was his pull? Ellington spent lavishly on his friends and family, so much so that he was deep in debt at the time of death. But money alone cannot explain his hold on people around him.

One thing in Duke's personality that did come through in the biography is his intense fear of being alone and his actual loneliness. He needed the band and could not live without it, but this busyness never provided the relief from the loneliness.

Another thing that came through, without heavy-handed treatment, is the scars of racism that all American jazz musicians have to live with. And yes, the white ones too.

Not being a musically knowledgeable person or a connoisseur of Ellington's discography, I am not able to assess Teachout's critique of Duke's music. It seems that Ellington's innate sensibility as a visual artist --- he showed a lot of talent in art before he got into music --- gave a strong impressionistic character of his music. Teachout does not, however, comment on the sensuality and sexuality that are evoked bluntly, almost nakedly, in some of his pieces.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


Binge-watched this Danish TV series this weekend. 3 seasons, 24 episodes, 1 hour each. Yikes. If I didn't have a lot of work to do, I'd have gone on to binge-watch The Bridge. Scandinavian detective series are SO addictive.

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