27 October 2010

Making A Movie

By Kirk Woodward

[As actors in New York know, making student and independent films is a part of the business here. Most young actors do extra work on features and TV shows and audition for the projects of the film students in the many schools and programs here as well. Kirk, who’s contributed many interesting articles to ROT before, may be a tad older and more experienced than those young beginners, but he, too, found himself working on an independent film recently. His greater familiarity with the business, though as you’ll hear he’s more focused on writing and directing than acting, makes his perspective on this common experience a little more astute, perhaps. His description may be revealing to those just learning these ropes. ~Rick]

I've taught acting for years now, but I haven't been doing much acting. My principal performance activities for quite a while have involved directing and writing plays, in addition to playing keyboards in several musical frameworks. I was never an outstanding actor anyway. I picked up all the bad habits I could while I was in high school, and I didn't shed them until years later when I found a wonderful teacher at the HB Studio in New York named Elizabeth Dillon. She diagnosed my weaknesses immediately and put me on the right path.

"Darling," Elizabeth said in her deep, smoky voice the first time I called in for a scene, "all I want you to do is four things:

• Listen.
• Know what you want.
• Have some sort of physical life."

I never expected to make a career of acting, because I knew my limitations, but I wanted to be competent enough to act when called on to do so, and I wanted to know how to communicate with actors as a director. With Elizabeth’s guideposts in mind, ultimately I became, not a versatile actor – not a "shape-shifter" or a particularly facile performer – but at least capable of fairly honest work.

But as I said, as far as acting goes I lived up to the modified adage that "those who don't, teach." I didn't act but I did teach it. So I was in for a shock when a filmmaker named Dylan Pasteur, who went to school with my daughter, asked me to do a significant role in an independent film he was making, called On Vacation. The scenes I was in, about twenty pages of them, took place in one continuous section of the movie, which is a feature-length film.

My previous movie experience, I should note, consisted entirely of one three-line part in a New York University student film, back in the seventies, I suppose. My friend Mona Hennessy, who had a lead in the film, suggested me for a small part. We started filming about ten at night and finished as the sun came up the next morning. Movies take a lot of time to film.

On Vacation is an adventure full of mystery. The basic story would be familiar to Alfred Hitchcock – an ordinary person finds, in this case, herself suddenly caught up in ominous events she doesn't understand, where her entire identity, not to mention her life, is threatened. (In Hitchcock's films it's usually a man who has this happen to him. My favorite example is Cary Grant's character in North by Northwest.) The style of the film, I would say, reminds one of David Lynch's TV series Twin Peaks. Strange, off-center, disorienting events occur, often in such "normal" settings that they seem particularly eerie.

I read the script and thought it was fine, and I formed a basic impression or two of my role, but I didn't do any serious work on it for a long time. This, as I'm sure I don't need to tell you, was a mistake. The old bromide that "There are no small parts, only small actors" is true in ways I hadn't anticipated. You have to be a really small actor to think there's such a thing as an easy part. I guarantee you that if Maryl Streep somehow agreed to do a walk-on in her daughter's high school play, she'd do – proportionally – the same amount of work for that role that she would for, say, her performance as Julia Childs in Julie and Julia. There are no roles that an actor can look down on – at least not for me there aren't. If this comment reflects my limited talent level – and it does – so be it. In any case, I should have approached the part seriously as soon as I got it. I didn't.

What's more, the dates for filming my section of the movie changed several times, not that that was any problem to me; it probably reflected more the problems Dylan was finding as he tried to make his cast and his location, not to mention, his financing, come together at the same time, but it did mean I had reasons not to come to terms with the script.

First, I believe, we were going to film in Park Slope (Brooklyn), which didn't thrill me because I live in New Jersey and it would mean a lot of travel for me – a selfish attitude, because most of the actors in the film are actually from New York. Then the shooting was going to take place in Paterson, New Jersey – closer! – and finally it settled into a house in Montclair, New Jersey, that is actually just down the street from where I live, so I was able to walk to the shooting each night. I'll bet they don't get to do that in Hollywood! My apologies to my new New York actor friends, but I certainly did enjoy the convenience of the location.

It was the perfect house for the film, too. One of the actors, Lucia Brizzi, lived there; her parents were away; and the house had a secluded, off-on-its-own feeling that was perfect for the movie. (My other acting colleagues were Katey Parker, Lauren McCune, and Dave Hurwitz.)

I had a lot going on in my life at the time the shooting was scheduled, or I convinced myself that I did, so I didn't begin serious work on the script until the Monday before the filming, which was scheduled for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night of Labor Day weekend this year, 2010. As you have undoubtedly anticipated, I had not left myself enough time.

I have never been in a play, as opposed to a movie, where the director wanted the actors to come to the first rehearsal with their lines memorized, although I know there are such directors. Noel Coward was one; he always arrived at a first rehearsal "letter perfect," and he desperately wanted the actors he directed to do the same, although they seldom did, to his everlasting despair. A more usual practice in theater is for lines to be memorized after some preliminary rehearsals, when the basic intentions and the movements have been worked out.

However, you can't count on this happening in a movie shoot. Most film directors I've heard of do only minimal rehearsals. Sidney Lumet is an exception; he rehearses his casts for two weeks before shooting starts. But Lumet comes from a theater background. Some film directors don't direct actors at all, except to tell them where to stand; they assume that the actors know their business, just like the sound crew and the lighting crew know theirs. The actor shows up, works, goes home.

Dylan, our director, did direct, and he had intended to hold rehearsals before shooting, but the calendar betrayed him, and he ended up having to rehearse each scene just before we shot it. This meant that we had to know our lines before we arrived. In On Vacation the lines, I'd say, looked easier to memorize than they actually were. Or maybe my brain just didn't have the necessary horsepower.

In any case, I found the first night unbelievably frustrating. It was a case of sensory overload. If I were to make a list of the factors that were rattling me, it would read something like this:

Dylan kept telling me how excited he was that I'd be in the film, and how he knew I'd be great in it. The word "great," my friends, has otherwise never been associated with my acting and never will be. If I can just do the job as well as I’m able, that's all I will ever ask.

Everyone was younger than me – I mean at least three decades younger than me. You would think the age factor might make a big difference in acting situations, but actually it doesn't. One acts or one doesn't. Every actor is terrified of not being able to do a good job, regardless of age, because each acting job is different from the one before it.

So with luck, a group of actors will unify itself quickly, and this one certainly did. I support you because I need you to support me – that's part of the dynamic. So my age didn't really bother any of the others, as far as I could tell; it only bothered me.

But these were also terrific actors. Every one of them was both talented and trained, and what's more, as far as I know they all spent more time making films than doing live theater, so they were comfortable with the way a film works. They were, I must say, about the most likeable group of people I've ever been in. With rare exceptions, actors are wonderful people. I am happy to report that I didn't feel as awed by the abilities of this group as I might have felt; there wasn't time, and, as I will talk about more, I had to concentrate on the work.

Filmmaking is fairly chaotic. There's lots of sitting around; we all chatted away to an astounding extent while waiting for something, usually unspecified, to happen. Dylan, meanwhile, was busily shaping his environment, including his actors and his crew (a cinematographer and a sound man), in preparation for whatever was coming next. Waiting, in its way, is as strenuous as doing, especially if you're not sure how you'll do when you're doing.

Acting has its own pressures anyway. By its nature it requires very strong focus, and a film set has distractions to beat the band. You've undoubtedly seen photographs of two actors in an intimate moment in a Hollywood film, and around them are about sixty people, many of them holding major pieces of equipment. In those circumstances you need to put every ounce of concentration you've got on what you're doing in the scene, and you have to do it time after time.

It had been years since I'd had to memorize dialogue. As far as I can tell, my mind hasn't slipped many gears in the interim, but I certainly didn't take to these lines like a duck to water – more like, maybe, a car to water. The first night we filmed, I had to stop a number of times and gasp, not for air, but for lines. I wouldn't have worried too much, because blowing a line doesn't matter – the mistake won't be there when the film has been edited.

I'm sure I could add more items to the list, but those will do.

I should say a word about the technical elements of the shoot. When I first arrived on the set – that is, the house we were shooting inside – I thought the camera hadn't arrived yet. All I saw were a couple of expensive looking still cameras. Those turned out to be the movie cameras as well. They are digital; Canon apparently makes one for a very reasonable price that can film – well, record – a fine movie, with replaceable data disks in it. Once or twice Dylan used two of these cameras; at those times he operated one while the cinematographer (Connor Stratton) operated the other, or he placed one on a surface for a static shot.

The sound man (John Hildenstein) had a pocket sized digital recorder and a pocket sized mixing board, and a microphone on the end of a very light-weight hand-held boom that could extend about ten feet. The lighting was provided by two or three portable instruments that looked like desk lights on very thin floor-lamp stands (unless those belonged to the house, which I guess they could have). When additional illumination was required, the crew taped a bare light bulb (sometimes a 200-watt bulb) onto the wall or the ceiling. I remember only once seeing a reflector, of the kind you see in photographs of big Hollywood shoots, being used. Dylan, incidentally, on this film was his own film editor.

Dylan ran a fun ship. I saw him in earnest moments but I never saw him angry or irritable. He schmoozed constantly with the cast, and – other directors take note – he never gave his instructions as though they were a matter of life and death, and he always surrounded them with praise. Occasionally, as I've hinted, he may have given a bit too much praise, but that's an amiable fault, he was aware of it, and he sometimes parodied his own enthusiasm.

As I said, we filmed for three nights, and I had no tolerance for praise the first night, because I was too mad at myself for not being fully "there" in the filming. I knew, though, what I had to do. When I showed up the second night, I had my lines pretty much down cold, I stayed "in the moment" as much as I could, and I focused on my partner as though my life depended on it.

In doing these things I was, remarkably, actually doing what I teach in acting class, which can be boiled down to the words, "Focus on getting what you want." The theory is that at any moment in life each of us wants something. That something may make sense or be crazy, it may be a small, everyday thing or a huge, life-changing one, but we always want to achieve something specific at any given moment.

As I type, for example, I'm focusing right now on what I want – I want to write a decent article. (You may be wanting to read one.) Actors have different names for this want – they may call it the objective, the action, the need, the victory, or many other names. The point is, there is something – which may change from moment to moment – that they want to achieve, and they focus on achieving it.

Identifying the "want" isn't always easy, but focusing on it can really take work. In making a film, I discovered, it takes even more work than on stage, or at least a different kind of work, because of the following factors:

As already noted, you have potential distractions all around you, sometimes right in your face, when you film a scene.

You will likely have to do the same piece of a scene over and over. Some directors, like Clint Eastwood, don't like retakes. (Eastwood will sometimes actually film a rehearsal without the actors' knowing it, and use that instead of a formally filmed scene.) I don't remember Dylan's making more than four takes of a given scene, but four is plenty, take my word for it. I can't imagine what it must be like working with a director who makes fifty – which is not unheard of.

Since the film will probably shoot out of sequence – the ending of the film might even be shot before anything else – you need to know as an actor exactly what's going on at that moment in the film in relation to the whole. This was not a problem for us in On Vacation, because we shot more or less in sequence, with some exceptions. However, whether you shoot in sequence or not, you have to be in the correct moment each time the camera rolls.

The hours can be lousy. I mentioned how long it took to film the NYU student film – all night long. In the case of On Vacation I never had to stay past midnight, but some of the actors did. People get tired late at night – that's a biological fact. When that happens, one's determination simply has to exceed one's fatigue. There's no alternative, and that can be difficult to deal with.

Concentration is just plain hard work. There's no way around it. I tried to focus on my partner(s) in a scene with every ounce of energy I had, and I left feeling like I'd been wrung out like a sponge.

If I had more experience making movies, I imagine I'd learn to pace myself better. Coincidentally, during the filming I talked with someone who had worked with Jack Nicholson. This person reported how during the filming of a scene Nicholson would focus with such intensity that it was like he was surrounded by some overwhelming, powerful force. The second the director yelled "Cut," Nicholson would completely drop the character and seem like some random goofball. I'm sure Nicholson taught himself to do this so he'd have energy to draw on for the next shot, and the next, and the next, and not waste his strength. For me, I had to stay partially – not completely – in character as much as I could between shots, when I wasn't looking at my lines again.

Dylan's basic approach was to first run the lines for a scene, so the actors had the chance to say them without pressure. He made comments on how we were doing things if he had any. Then he staged the scene very roughly, so that everyone knew approximately where they had to go and to stand. Sometimes the details didn't matter, because the shots would also be filmed from various close angles anyway. Sometimes the details mattered a lot, and Dylan and the cinematographer would confer on them at length, then stage certain bits very specifically, in terms of what the camera needed.

Then we'd do two or more takes of the whole scene from a wide angle, with the camera rolling the entire time, and then shoot the same scene with the camera focused on each character in turn. Then we'd shoot the special bits and inserts that Dylan knew would be required in editing the film, like, say, a shot of two canvas bags lying on the floor, or a minute of someone singing a song. Eventually he'd have all he needed, and we'd move on to the next scene.

Dylan's triumph came on the third night of filming, when we had to shoot ten pages of dialogue. This is a lot to film in several days, much less in one night. The crew shot the scene as a continuous shot, moving from room to room, then broke it down into its component parts and filmed those, and we were finished before midnight. Remarkable.

That's my movie experience. I got several things out of it:

Friendships, for one thing, with several remarkable performers, along with new respect for actors and what really outstanding people they are.

Admiration for people like Dylan, Connor, and John, who think visually (or, in John's case, auditorially) with as much ease as people like me think literarily.

Astonishment at what goes into a film – I find that I see movies in a whole new way now, because I'm aware of the range of choices behind what the filmmakers finally include.

And increased respect for the art of acting, which takes pretty much all you've got, but gives you back so much in return.

At the start of this article I mentioned the four things Elizabeth Dillon told me to do in order to be able to act:

• Talk.
• Listen.
• Know what you want.
• Have some sort of physical life.

These turned out to be exactly the things I needed to do in order to survive this little episode in filmmaking. While Elizabeth was alive I always thought I'd like to go back to her class to see if I'd actually learned anything. It's lovely to find out that I actually had.

22 October 2010

“May You Be Blessed With Light”: The Zuni Shalako Rite

The Shalako ceremony of the Zuni Indians of New Mexico is, according to Frank Waters, a writer of mixed Cheyenne and Southern Caucasian ancestry, a rite that assures the transformation of winter’s death into spring’s rebirth. The ritual is expected to bless the Zuni people with the sun’s light for another year. It is also a dramatic interpretation of what the Zuni religion means to the people. As one Zuni chant tells it:

This night
The ones who are our fathers
Masked god priests,
All the masked gods.
At their precious mountain,
Their precious lake,
Perpetuating what has been since the first beginning,
Have assumed human form.

All observers describe the Shalako ceremony as a magnificent spectacle; Waters, who lived in Taos (site of one of the oldest pueblos), said simply that it is “one of the greatest Pueblo ceremonials.” American ethnologist Walter Hough, in fact, found the various Pueblo kachina dances, of which the Shalako ceremony is one, “the best round of theatrical entertainment enjoyed by any people in the world, for nearly every ceremony has its diverting side, for religion and drama are here united as in primitive times.” Leonardo Shapiro, an innovative stage director about whom I’ve written several times on ROT and who adapted the deities’ name for his theater company, told me that the ceremony, which he saw while living near Taos in the 1970s, was “the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever been in.”

Zuni Pueblo, on the Zuni Indian Reservation, is in the southwestern panhandle of McKinley County in western New Mexico, near the border with Arizona. The pueblo, home to about 6,500 people (1,500 families), is 35 miles south of Gallup and about 150 miles west of Albuquerque. The area was problably settled about 1,300 years ago (the Zuni say they have been there for millennia), though the current pueblo, the most populous of the 19 pueblos in New Mexico, has been the home of the tribe only since the 16th century and the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors under Francisco Coronado. (Taos and Acoma have been continuously inhabited for about 900 years. It is debatable which is the oldest.) The Zuni people, the most traditional of the Pueblo tribes, have a unique language, unrelated to any of the other Indian languages including the other Pueblo tongues; history; and culture.

The Shalakos are messengers between the spirit world and our own. They are the spirit figures of the Zuni pantheon who mediate between humanity and the gods of rain and prosperity, the principal Zuni deities. (The word means ‘rain bringer’ in the Zuni language. Remember, the Zuni are a desert people—rain is a powerful force in their culture.) The Shalakos come to the human realm to collect the people’s prayers and take them back to the rainmakers at the end of the ceremony, thus connecting the mortal world to the spirit realm. The ceremony reenacts the Zuni creation story; just as the flood of the Judeo-Christian Bible signifies rebirth and renewal, so does the Shalako ceremony.

Life for the Zuni is inextricably bound to their ceremonial art and performances. The Shalako ceremony, on the ninth day of the winter solstice to mark the Zuni new year, involves the entire village and reestablishes the people’s prospects for prosperity, long life, and fertility for the year to come. But spirituality is not the sole focus of these ceremonies at the center of Zuni culture. Most have a strong aesthetic component as well. Literary and social critic Edmund Wilson, who witnessed the ceremony, observed, “Here, too, one finds theater and worship before they have become dissociated, and the spectacle suggests comparisons in the fields of both religion and art,” noting a resemblance to Russian ballet under Diaghilev. “The public rituals constitute the most important esthetic expression of the people,” wrote Ruth Bunzel, an early 20th-century anthropologist who studied Zuni culture. She continued:

Not only are they “artistic” in the superficial sense, in that they embrace the types of behavior which we arbitrarily lump together as “the arts”—ornament, poetry, music, the dance—but they provide the satisfaction of the deeper esthetic drive. . . . Zuñi rituals have a style of their own that belongs to ritual as an art.

The Shalako itself—the word refers to the deity, the masked dancer, the mask itself, and the ceremony—is a nine- or ten-foot-tall figure, towering above the villagers and the “manager” each dancer needs to keep from toppling over. The Shalako mask, perhaps the largest in the world, is magnificent to behold:

The masks are turquoise-colored, with a crest of eagle and macaw feathers, and horns with red feather pendants, ball eyes, long snouts which open and close; long hair, a collar of raven feathers and fox skins, dance kilts, and white blankets are also part of the costume. The mask is carried on a pole, simulating a creature ten feet high. The masks are accorded great deference and are consecrated with cornmeal before each use. Each mask is associated with one of the six kivas [underground ceremonial chambers].

The personator looks out through a hole in the embroidered white blanket covering his body. His garments are expanded like a 19th-century belle’s hoop skirt with flexible wooden strips. Beneath the Shalako costume, the personator, his face painted, wears a black shirt trimmed with colored ribbons on his shoulders and sleeves and a black wool loincloth fastened with an embroidered sash. His legs and thighs are bare and his knees are painted red, his calves yellow. He wears high, red buckskin moccasins; only his legs are visible below the Shalako mask. (There are actually two personators for each Shalako: an “older brother” who carries the mask into the village and a “younger brother” who carries the basket of prayer sticks before the god. During the night-long ceremony, the younger brother will relieve the older brother when he’s tired of dancing. At the end of the rite, the roles are reversed.)

According to Zuni belief, those who wear the masks of the Shalakos are transformed into the spirits they personate. The mask of a Shalako, or any kachina, is sacred and magical. It's been ritually cleansed and rededicated, anointed with cornmeal and prayed over. It's been ceremonially given life. No one, not even the wearer who manipulates the strings that roll the eyes and clack the beak—he’s constrained from looking up into the cone-shaped mask above his head—must see how the mask actually works except the designated manager. The wearer’s not only possessed by the spirit and assumes the personality of the god he represents, but, the Zunis say, through him the god has become a human being. A masked personator is untouchable, dangerous to other humans until the paint is removed. But alongside the sacredness of the mask, it is also a work of art in the same way that the ceremony is both a religious ritual and theatrical entertainment. Both physical appearance (that is, beautiful bodies) and performing techniques are integral to the conduct of the personations—and those chosen each year are judged on how well they look, dance, chant, and sing. Members of the tribe aren’t averse to giving the participants performance reviews or, like our own John Simon, criticism of their physical attributes.

The Shalako personators are ordinary Zunis chosen during the preceding year and they prepare extensively for the ceremonies. Other villagers simply join in as the familiar ritual unfolds and still others, including outsiders, participate merely by being present. (There were a few specific exceptions to the Zunis’ inclusiveness: because of their violent suppression of the Pueblo culture, Spaniards—and, by inheritance, Spanish-Americans—are not welcome, and certain Indian tribes who have been historically hostile to the Zunis, such as the Apaches, are excluded. In recent years, the Zunis have restricted their ceremonies to outsiders considerably.) The six Shalako personators, one for each of the compass points plus up and down, enter the village escorted by the Long Horn kachina, who has curative powers, after the way is prepared by “mudhead” clowns, called koyemshi. The ceremony, at the end of a year-long ceremonial period when prayers sticks are planted in February, May, October, and November, lasts all night and progresses throughout the village as the Shalakos make their way to the specially prepared houses in which they will spend the night. The progress of the Shalakos, who perform a distinctive dance and run ceremonial foot races, is accompanied by singing, clowning by the koyemshi—some of it pretty low—and prayers. Villagers line the route or watch from the flat roofs of the adobe pueblo houses. The adults all know, of course, that beneath the costumes are fellow villagers (possessed though they may be), but the children are protected from this knowledge until they are initiated as adolescents; for the young, these figures are their pueblo’s gods. The proceeding, which recapitulates the story of the people’s arrival at Zuni and the founding of the pueblo, is a kind of circus-cum-mystery play.

The koyemshi (the Hopi call them tachuki), portrayed as witless, impotent, and grossly misshapen spirits—they represent the idiot children of incest—entertain the villagers with comic and often obscene interludes. Their masks are like knobby helmets made of soft cotton colored with pink clay from Sacred Lake, with bulbous lumps (filled with seeds, cotton, and dirt from the pueblo streets) on their heads and protruding eyes and puckered lips. The use of the earth gives the clowns magical power over the people so the koyemshi can claim their respect and veneration. Sometimes there are feathers sprouting from the knobs. The clowns’ bodies are also painted pink with sacred clay, and the only other costume is a short, black kilt. There are 10 of these sacred clowns, considered brothers, but each has his own personality, reflected in the imagery of the mask and the antics he performs. One, for instance, speaks gibberish when he tries to say the ritual prayers; another’s cowardly, lagging behind the group and hiding under ladders; another can only laugh; and so on. The clowns sing and tell jokes about the villagers; play games of beanbag, tag, or leapfrog; perform magic tricks; chase the Shalakos; and generally do anything to make people laugh. Ironically, the koyemshi masks are the most dangerous in the Zuni religion: no one dares even to touch them for fear of going sexually crazy.

Kachinas among the Pueblos and Hopis are spirits who mediate between the human and spiritual worlds, and may be interpreted as spirits of the dead, among other things. Frank Waters, who wrote both novels and non-fiction books about the Indians of the high desert of northern New Mexico, writes:

Kachinas thus are spirits. Spirits of the dead, spirits of all the mineral, plant, animal, and human forms that have traveled the Road, spirits of the mythical heroes, the stars, clouds, color-directions . . . . The kachinas, then, are the inner forms, the spiritual components of the outer physical forms, which may be invoked to manifest their benign powers so that man may be enabled to continue his journey. They are the invisible forces of life. Not really gods, but rather intermediators, messengers.

They’re often represented in Indian ceremonies as masked dancers who personify them or as elaborately carved and decorated dolls. (The masks are sacred but the dolls are given to children to help them recognize the spirits of the Pueblo pantheon.) The Long Horn kachina is the human counterpart of the rainmaker spirits, the rain priest of the north. He heads the rain priesthood and is the keeper of the Zuni ceremonial calendar. A projection on the right side of his mask accounts for his name and symbolizes long life. The Shalakos are kachinas.

The men who perform in the ceremony are chosen during the year before the Shalako performance. During this year, these men must live exemplary lives. They meet periodically through the year to learn the long prayers they will chant, dance, make ritual offerings, go into retreats, make pilgrimages to distant shrines, offer monthly prayer sticks, run foot races, fast, and abstain from sex. Eight days before the Shalako—the final ritual episode lasts 14 days, this year from 5-18 December—the ten koyemshi announce publicly that the ritual will be held and then go into seclusion. Four days before the procession, the Long Horn kachina makes a proclamation and a group of six, the Council of the Gods, begins a four-day retreat. On the day of the Shalako ceremony, the Council of the Gods enters the village, sprinkles cornmeal, and plants prayer sticks at six shrines, aligning Zuni Pueblo with the six directions. The Council goes to a special house where they perform chants and dance through the night. In the freezing dusk, the Shalakos approach the pueblo and pause on the plain on the south bank of the Zuni River before proceeding into the village.

Ruth Bunzel characterized the appearance of the Shalakos as “the most impressive moment in the [Shalako] ceremonies”:

As soon as it is quite dark the six [Shalakos] cross the river quietly and then suddenly rise out of the river bed, each surrounded by a group of singers from his kiva, all singing antiphonal songs. . . . The songs are magnificent, and the sudden appearance of the six giant figures in the moonlight is superb.

Waters picks up the vivid description of the highly theatrical rite in Masked Gods:

Then suddenly they came. Out of the wide, white universe, out of the myth and legend, out of the depths of America itself.

They came filing into the open plaza, shaking their gourd rattles, uttering their strange cries. A line of figures part man, part beast, part bird. Bare bodies splotched with paint, sinuously bending at the waist. Wearing ceremonial kirtles, a ruff of spruce around the neck, and dancing in moccasined feet. But glaring with bulging eyes from great wooden heads—heads with long bird beaks and toothed snouts, square heads, round heads, cloud-terraced heads bearing the symbols of lightning and rain, and hung with tufts of eagle feathers.

How brilliant their clear colors against the snow! Beautiful, so beautiful. But so horrible and frightening too.

They began dancing. Shaking their rattles at the cringing children. Glaring at the stolid missionary. Crying at the pipe-chewing trader. Dancing back and forth before the rapt boy seeing them for the first time. No longer man nor beast nor bird, but embodied forces of earth and sky swirling across the sea of snow from the blue mountains on the horizon, shaking the remote and rocky island, stirring awake the archaic wonder and mystery and pristine purity of man’s apperception of his cosmic role. Dancing as gods have always danced before their people. Masked by the grotesque, but commanding that comprehension of the heart which alone recognizes the beauty within.

Suddenly it was over.

The Shalako ceremony, which lasts all night, ends in special Shalako houses built by the families sponsoring that year’s rite. When the Shalakos arrive in Zuni Pueblo, they plant prayer sticks in shrines and go to the ceremonial homes where they will spend the night. After the procession, the masked deities and their attendants arrive at the ritual homes where they conduct rites and are entertained. Bigger than regular Zuni dwellings, there are usually eight ceremonial houses: six for the Shalakos, one for the mudheads, and one for the Long Horn kachina. The house includes a long room hung with pelts, skins, blankets, and gaily colored calico to decorate and brighten the whitewashed walls. It is a stage set for the ritual drama that will be played out here. The Shalakos bless the houses and pray that the tribe will prosper, live long, and be fertile. When each Shaliko enters his house, he sits by the prepared turquoise altar, decorated with eagle feathers, at the end of the long room and ritual reed cigarettes are passed around. (A similar ceremony has unfolded earlier at the houses of the koyemshi, who also perform magic tricks and clever sleight of hand, and the Long Horn kachina.) Smoke from the cigarettes is blown in the six directions so “that the rain makers may not withhold their misty breath.” (Breath in Pueblo belief is the symbol of life.) The personator removes the mask revealing the costume and body decoration beneath. This is followed by a two-hour ritual questioning of the personator by the host and his family, friends, and attendants. Spectators from outside begin to flow in while a few look in through the windows and move on to another house; some come and go throughout the long night and some, mostly the very young, catnap. (Those that doze off are awakened gently by the Shalako who clacks his beak over them.) In the early evening, the Shalakos chant elaborate prayers which hold magical and spiritual significance in their very words. The delivery of the chants is important as well, however, because oratory is a notable skill among the Pueblo and the personator will be judged on his art as well as the faithfulness of his recitation. This is followed by a feast prepared by the pueblo women (and paid for at great expense by the sponsor). Around midnight, the dancing, which lasts until morning, starts.

The distinctive dance includes sharp clacking of the Shalakos’ long snouts and birdlike swoops from one end of the room to the other. The feathered headdress atop the 10-foot mask almost brushes the ceiling beams of the ceremonial room. The glow of the fire serves as stage lighting for this spectacle, the flickering firelight animating the features of the mask. The spectators are rapt, staring up at the giant figure in the fire’s glow. The Shalako swoops up the street, gliding and dipping with seeming effortlessness. As ungainly as the giant conical figure seems, it moves with surprising grace and fluidity. The top of the giant figure, the huge eyes rolling in their sockets, towers above the heads of the crowd until the Shalako swings around and returns to the house. The experience is said to be mesmerizing and even many non-Indians have reported that they fell under the hypnotic spell of the dancing gods.

The next morning, the Shalakos run a cermonial relay race in which the masked personators run back and forth between 12 holes in which they plant prayer sticks. Like many Pueblo rites, this race is not to see who wins—winning or competitiveness itself is not a Pueblo virtue; it is a race to show endurance. If the Shalako personators can complete the race after dancing all night, they prove that the Zuni people are strong and faithful enough to prosper for the next year and pass their strength on to their children. (In fact, the whole ceremony is an endurance test as well as a celebration and a spiritual renewal.) After the race, a test of whether the Shalako personators have kept their sacred vows during the past year, the spirits return to their home in the west as the people, gathered again on the roofs, watch silently as the giant gods, accompanied by music and singing, leave the village and fade into the distance. There are several more days of dancing and singing, but the Shalakos have gone for another year.

According to the general philosophy of Pueblo peoples (and many other American Indian cultures), everything is connected. Health and wellbeing is the consequence of a universe in harmony; we become ill or our society suffers crises when the forces of the universe are out of balance. The Shalako rite is one effort to put things back into harmony, and the Zunis believe that the benefits of the ritual accrue to everyone in the community, participants and spectators alike, and even to those beyond the pueblo borders. Between those conducting the ceremony and those for whom it's performed, for instance, there's a constant evocation of sharing. The Shalako prayers constantly speak of adding to someone’s heart—the center of the emotions and “profound thought”—and breath—the symbol of life, the way spiritual substance is communicated, and the source of mana, or divine power. The celebrants add to the hearts of their “fathers” (the gods), the gods to the hearts of the celebrants, the celebrants to those of the people, and so on. It's a ritual passing of spiritual power. It's further significant that, though the Shalako ceremony is specifically for Zunis, strangers (with the exceptions noted earlier) were welcome: “Verily, so long as we enjoy the light of day,” a Shalako prayer promises, “We shall greet one another as kindred”; another refrain vows: “And henceforth, as kindred, Talking kindly to one another, We shall always live.”

The Shalako ceremony is a loving enactment for the people of Zuni of their religion and their history. It's a celebration of the coming new year and a prayer, expressed in action, for continued prosperity, fertility, and long life. It's an offering to the gods in thanks for their favors in the past and to ensure their continuing benevolence and protection. But it's also a ceremonial for the dead. At the winter solstice, the earth is on the verge of dying: the sun will withdraw from the skies for increasing parts of the day, the warmth and light will diminish, the plants and animals disappear from the land. But the Shalakos assure the people that it's only a temporary withdrawal and that renewal will come again when the sun is reborn. A new year has begun.

[The name Shalako has several spelling variations—the Zuñi language has no written form so transcriptions differ—but this is the most common one. (Anthropological texts may use forms that often include diacritical marks.) Kachina, too, had various spellings. The ceremony itself is sometimes called “The Shalakos Are Coming” or “The Shalakos Come.” I’ve provided a selective description of the elaborate event that is the Shalako ritual; I’ve omitted considerable elements and there’s no discussion at all of the underlying religion and philosophy of the Zuni culture of which the ceremony is a part. For further particulars on this ritual, the interested reader is directed to the many anthropological studies, the most detailed of which are arguably Ruth Bunzel’s Zuni Ceremonialism (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992) and Matilda Coxe Stevenson’s The Zuni Indians (New York: Johnson Reprint Corp., [1970]). Somewhat more literary descriptions are provided in Dancing Gods: Indian Ceremonials of New Mexico and Arizona (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1931) by Erna Fergusson; Frank Waters’s Masked Gods: Navaho and Pueblo Ceremonialism (Chicago: Swallow Press 1950); Edmund Wilson’s Red, Black, Blond and Olive: Studies in Four Civilizations: Zuñi, Haiti, Soviet Russia, Israel (New York: Oxford University Press 1956); and, Pueblo: Mountain, Village, Dance (New York: Viking Press, 1975) by Vincent Scully. I’m sure the Internet also has many sites with information on the Zuni and their ceremonies.]

17 October 2010

'My Name Is Rachel Corrie' (2006)


Written and directed by Simone Bitton; director of photography, Jacques Bouquin; edited by Catherine Poitevin and Jean-Michel Perez; produced by Thierry Lenouvel; released by Women Make Movies. At the Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue, at Second Street, East Village. In English, Arabic and Hebrew, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. This film is not rated.

“Rachel,” Simone Bitton’s fascinating if uneven documentary about Rachel Corrie, the activist killed in Gaza in 2003, shares a goal with “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” the controversial Off Broadway play from 2006. Both lionize this 23-year-old protester from Olympia, Wash., who was crushed under a mound of dirt pushed by an Israeli bulldozer clearing a Palestinian area.

Ms. Bitton’s film is not so much a portrait of Ms. Corrie, reviewing events that fed her idealism, as much as an examination of her death. Ms. Bitton, who has French and Israeli citizenship, interviews Ms. Corrie’s fellow activists from the International Solidarity Movement — Scots, an Englishman, a Chicagoan, a performance artist from Kansas City, Mo., in their teens and 20s when in Gaza — as well as her parents and professors, a doctor, members of the Israel Defense Forces and Palestinians who knew her.

No Gazan on camera speaks of Palestinian militant activity, while Israelis are twice filmed holding documents that are related to the incident against their chest like scarlet letters; Ms. Corrie’s agonized mother is in deep close-up as her father reads a letter from their daughter. Ms. Bitton’s off-screen voice is audibly sympathetic with the activists and disdainful of the Israelis, who are mindful of the international condemnation prompted by the death but stoic, resigned to the consequences of a perennial conflict.

A protester acknowledges the “extremely naïve” dimension of his actions, and Ms. Corrie, while wry in writing about “propagandizing” in her letters, also comes off as endearingly youthful, passionate and earnest. Regrettably, the film, almost devoid of music, is drastically undermined at its end by an inadvertently comic rap tribute by the Kansas City performance artist to the “American citizen with Palestinian blood.”

— Andy Webster, New York Times, 8 October 2010


[A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times ran a short review of the documentary film Rachel, which I’ve reprinted above. The film is another look at the death of the young American activist Rachel Corrie who took up the Palestinian cause in 2003 and stood in front of an Israeli bulldozer to prevent it from knocking down a Palestinian home. She was killed there in Gaza on 16 March 2003. As Andy Webster’s review notes, this same territory was covered by the controversial documentary play My Name Is Rachel Corrie, which I saw in its Off-Broadway run in 2006. Now I’m publishing on ROT the (slightly amended) report I wrote on that performance to coincide with the release of the film.

[My Name Is Rachel Corrie, edited by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner, had its première at the Royal Court Theatre’s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs in London from 7 to 30 April 2005; the production moved to the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs from 11 to 29 October 2005. In February 2006, the New York Theatre Workshop announced a production of Rachel Corrie for their season, to run from 22 March to 14 April 2006, but after protests from Jewish groups and threats to withdraw financial support by contributors to NYTW, the theater decided to “postpone indefinitely” the production in order to “contextualize” the performance. Rickman and Viner denounced the decision and withdrew the play. Rachel Corrie ultimately played commercially at the Minetta Lane Theatre Off-Broadway from 15 October to 17 December 2006 (including an extension).]

On Tuesday, 17 October 2006, my friend, and frequent theater companion, Diana and I went to My Name Is Rachel Corrie which is playing at the Minetta Lane Theatre in the Village in the original London production for a limited run. As some of you may know, the play was announced last March at the New York Theatre Workshop for what would have been its U.S. premiere, but it was withdrawn when several (unnamed) Jewish groups protested. NYTW claimed it would only postpone the production until it could set up some "context" (read: defensive panels and other counter-events), but no one believed them and many prominent theater artists—including Vanessa Redgrave, Harold Pinter, and Tony Kushner—First Amendment advocates, and anti-censorship activists attacked the theater for cowardice and suppression of free speech, and so on. (It was not unlike what happened when the Manhattan Theatre Club caved under threats of violence and yanked their 1998 production of McNally's Corpus Christi—though they eventually reinstated the production. I guess Jews threatening to pull support is scarier than Christians threatening death and destruction. Go know.)

I'm sure most Israelis (like my friend Helen Kaye) know the history behind the play, and maybe you all do—but in case you've forgotten or haven't caught up since the play hit some headlines, Rachel Corrie was an American from Olympia, Washington, who became an activist "international" in Gaza protesting the Israeli and Israel Defense Force actions against Palestinian civilians. She and her group, the International Solidarity Movement, most strongly objected to the destruction of the homes of Palestinians when someone in the family was accused of taking part in the Intifada or terrorism. At one protest on 16 March 2003, she put herself between a home in Rafah and the bulldozer and was crushed to death. She was 23 and had been keeping a journal since she was 12 and e-mailing her parents and friends daily—and she was an extremely articulate and gifted writer. (At the end of the play, there is a short tape of the real Rachel Corrie making a speech at some rally when she was 10 years old. She was already an aspiring poet, and her speech—almost a prose poem—is an astounding piece of writing for anyone, let alone a 10-year-old!) It's little wonder that someone would find in her journals and messages the voice of someone worth paying attention to, so Alan Rickman, the British actor, and journalist Katharine Viner, who call themselves "editors" for this project, assembled selections into a script that was first staged in 2005 by the Royal Court Theatre's upstairs experimental theater and then moved down to its main stage. It was very well received by both critics and audiences in London and both the play and Corrie became causes célèbres (though Corrie had already been since her death).

It's important to note, I think, that Corrie was never a rabid pro-Palestinian activist or anything remotely close to that. She was an idealist and a humanist—and, perhaps (depending on your viewpoint), naïve in the way that many sensitive adolescents, especially in this country, often are. Neither she nor the play preaches the "Palestinian Cause" (whatever that is)—it is not polemical in that sense. Of course, it's hard not to see that both her sympathies and those of the "editors" lie with the civilians who are devastated on both sides, but especially those who face the force of the "ninth most powerful army in the world." Even so, outside the theater, even in the pouring rain we had here all day that day, there were a pair of advocates for Israel passing out fliers with the opposing perspective on Corrie's death. ("Would you like some more information on the play," they asked politely as we passed by.)

Okay, enough history and background. There are many websites with information on both the play and Corrie—you can look it up yourselves if you need more. My task is to describe the performance. And I'm sad to report that it was disappointing in the extreme, on just about every level. I guess I should explain why I even went to Rachel Corrie, especially since it's one (actually two) of the kinds of theater I generally don't like very much—a one-person show and a documentary play. (That last is a bit ironic as I'm reworking an essay on the subject.) First, and obviously, there was so much mishegoss about the play from the cancellation at the NYTW and it had come with such a reputation for excellence that I had to see what it was all about. Second, I oppose vociferously all censorship (except for true national security and protection of innocents like children and crime victims). I don't make a distinction between official governmental censorship by fiat or censorship by intimidation. This was my way of protesting the actions of those who prevented NYTW from presenting the play, even if the message were execrable (which it wasn't anyway). I stand with our Founding Fathers (I think it was Jefferson or Madison, but I'm not sure) who said that the only proper response to speech you hate is more speech.

But that's all politics of one kind or another. As theater, Rachel Corrie is terrible. Ben Brantley's review was in the Times on 16 October and he was somewhat ambivalent. It was almost as if he was afraid to make a commitment one way or the other about his response to the play. There's not a thing theatrical about the production concept—it's just a young woman talking for 90 minutes. (She climbs on the set—a representation of a bombed-out house—a little. Oh, and she types on a computer several times. That's it.) And she has no audience—I have no idea who we are in this scheme. I mean, there are so many easy set-ups: in Mark Twain Tonight!, we're simply the audience at a Twain lecture; the same for Clarence Darrow. Gertrude Stein had invited us into her apartment for a chat in GS3, and Louise Nevelson was being interviewed by a journalist in Albee's Occupant. (Occupant maybe isn't such a good example—it was a terrible play, too.) Krapp talks into his tape recorder—he's by himself; we're not even there. But Rachel Corrie has no conceit at all as far as who the audience is. Since the material is mostly Corrie's diary entries, there's no innate audience (despite what Cecily Cardew says); the few e-mails are to people back in Olympia—her parents for the most part. We're certainly not them. Why the hell is she talking to us?

Then, as a consequence of this same source material, it's all just a long monologue. There's no real variation. Corrie's images are vivid enough—for a writer, but they don't provide much for an actress to do. It's not unlike a poetry recitation—the poems may be beautiful, but the reader doesn't do much but oral interp. That's neither very theatrical nor very dramatic. In fact, the only hint of drama comes not from Corrie's words (and certainly not her actions—she hasn't any to speak of), but from history: we know from the outset what befalls her. When Corrie writes with great optimism and generosity of spirit, we know how it's going to end. But that isn't in the writing, or the acting, or the directing, or the "editing"; it's not in anything creative at all. (And it isn't even in the play, except at the tail end when there's a recorded memoir of the event by an "eyewitness," delivered from an empty stage.)

I can't even say that the acting was as great as all the reviews reported. Maybe Megan Dodds is a good actress—but how does anyone really know? I certainly don't know her, and I don't know Corrie—so I can't tell whether what Dodds is doing on stage is really just her own personality, a re-creation of Corrie, or a totally fictional construct she and Rickman (who also directed) just made up. I mean, she's natural enough on stage, and that's an accomplishment of course—but it's not enough to get the tag "great acting." Not in my book, anyway. I mean, she did have Corrie's exceptional words to iterate—but I have no idea if she did anything more with them than just parrot them. Whatever "character" there was on stage really came from the words Corrie wrote—I got no sense that Dodds added anything or brought anything to light that wasn't in the journals. At the very end, as I mentioned, there's a videotape shown of that 10-year-old Corrie. That wasn't the same person grown up that I saw for the preceding 90 minutes.

(After I saw the production, the producers announced that Rachel Corrie was extended about a month from its original 19 November closing date. So much for my response. Apparently I was in a minority--though Diana did share my opinion. I’d heard one TV review—NY1, I believe—that seemed to agree with me, too. The reviewer wasn't as definitive in her judgment as I was, so I couldn't be absolutely certain she agreed. Anyway, I guess enough people wanted to see it, perhaps for issue-related reasons more than the quality of the dramaturgy, that the producers are keeping it around longer.)

I have kept calling Rachel Corrie a play—because I don't have another word for it. It's not a play. I'm not even sure it's theater. I don't know what it is (aside from enervating). I said it was propaganda, though Diana argued with my definition of the word. She insisted that propaganda has to include the attempt to make you believe something against your inclinations; otherwise, she said, it's just public information. First of all, I disagree—I don't think propaganda has to include making you believe something you otherwise wouldn't. My American Heritage Dictionary defines the word as "The systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views and interests of those people advocating such a doctrine or cause." It's not necessarily nefarious or evil, either. My dad's job was propaganda when he was in Germany—cultural propaganda, to be sure, but propaganda nonetheless. He didn't lie or cover up, but he did have an agenda: to show the United States in the best light possible. He presented Albee's American Dream for his German constituents—but USIA balked at sending West Side Story on a government tour because it showed a bad side of American society. That's propaganda in my book—benign maybe, but still information with an agenda. Second, even if you require of propaganda that it try to persuade surreptitiously, I still think Rachel Corrie qualifies. It wants you to sympathize with the beleaguered civilians whose homes are being bulldozed. It doesn't say so straight out, but that's what's going on, even if Rickman and Viner had no such agenda. (I think they did, but let's give them the benefit of the doubt for the sake of argument.) And, hey—I don't even disagree with that message: as one line Corrie quotes in her journal (from a Palestinian man she talks to), it's the leaders who make war. The little folks just get caught in the middle, no matter which side they're on. (And just for the record, I didn't support the policy of knocking down homes that way, any more than I agree with U.S. policy of banging up without legal recourse a bunch of Middle Easterners and Southern Asians just because someone labeled them "unlawful combatants.")

Diana asked what else anyone could have done with this material. The assumption seems to be that there's an alternative way to present it theatrically. But just because Corrie was a sympathetic figure, even an inspirational one, and she wrote extraordinarily well and expressively doesn't mean that she has to be dramatized. Maybe the stage isn't where she belongs. The answer to the question of what else to do may be that when you find that the verbatim text of the diaries doesn't stage—then you don't stage it. No one said you had to! You acknowledge that maybe it belongs in another medium. Ironically, I kept thinking of The Diary of Anne Frank—because the source material is so analogous (and Frank was also a budding writer). But Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett didn't transfer Frank's diary to the stage verbatim—it's not a documentary play. They took her story and retrofitted it onto a drama with characters and relationships. (In the sections of Corrie's journals that Rickman and Viner selected, there are no other characters—though I imagine there are elsewhere in the material.) Okay, Anne Frank is excessively sentimental—it was the '50s after all—but we're only talking about dramaturgy here. It certainly worked: it ran for over 700 performances on Broadway (and even the 1997 revival ran over 200 in our cynical and jaded age).

Ironically, there's a line at the end of the play in which Corrie says she's beginning to question her "fundamental belief in the goodness of human nature." That's awfully close to the direct reverse of the closing line of Anne Frank, where Anne affirms, "In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart."

(After I sent out this report in late October 2006, my friend Helen Kaye in Tel Aviv wrote back. she was, of course, living in Israel at the time of Rachel Corrie’s activism and death in Gaza, and her response to my report on the play, which hadn’t been staged in Israel for obvious reasons, was this:

(It's an eye-opener what you write about Corrie because of course none of that ever comes across from local information. It makes me recall (albeit foggily) the portrait painted by the media of Jomo Kenyatta at the time of the Mau Mau rebellions. He was made out to be a wild, filed-tooth savage that crunched human bones for breakfast, figuratively speaking. Then, when he became Kenya's first president, he was revealed as university-educated, well-read and an author. Corrie was painted by our media as just another fuzzy-minded, pro-Palestinian do-gooder who brought her demise upon herself. Nonsense, of course. I was in China when it happened and wasn't following too closely events in my part of the world.

(Unfortunately, I haven't the slightest doubt that the bulldozer made no attempt to avoid her.

(This is what makes existence here so schizophrenic. On the one hand some of the Arabs will be satisfied only when the last Jew is gone from the land and the threat against us is real. On the other, the things we do to the Palestinians in the name of "security" go beyond shameful. They are an obscenity and a disgrace to put it mildly.)

* * * *
[I don't hold with censorship either by official fiat or by intimidation, as I said (see also “The First Amendment & The Arts,” ROT, 3 May). I vehemently reject the stance taken by the opponents to the NYTW’s proposed presentation of Rachel Corrie. Furthermore, many First Amendment advocates see the relatively new tactic that’s arisen, the demand for “balance,” as a form of insidious, non-governmental censorship. Controversial views, whether expressed in art, lectures, essays and articles, exhibits, films and television programs, or theater, are challenged by both the right and the left if they are not presented with a “context” of the expression of views on the opposite side of the issue. This, critics say, suppresses dissenting voices and often results in the cancellation of the entire event as happened to My Name Is Rachel Corrie. Let me quote a line by Stephen Hopkins in the musical 1776: “Well, I’ll tell y’—in all my years I never heard, seen, nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about. . . . Hell yes, I’m for debatin’ anything . . . !” You don’t cut people off when you don’t like what they’re saying, you debate them.]

12 October 2010

Are Muscials Dead?

In August 2005, there was a New York Times report by Robert Simonson called “2 Broadway Composers Do Inharmonious Battle” on a contretemps between composer-lyricists Michael John LaChiusa and Marc Shaiman. (The scrap was also reported in Variety: Robert Hoffler’s “Inside Move: Tunesmiths take tussle to mag, Web.”) LaChiusa, composer of plays such as The Wild Party and The First Lady Suite, had written an essay in Opera News, “The Great Gray Way,” which opened with the statement, “The American Musical is dead,” and called plays like The Producers, Mama Mia!, and Shaiman's own Hairspray "faux-musicals." Shaiman, “hoping to stir up a reaction," responded in a theater chatroom, mostly to defend himself, his collaborators, and their work. I went to the Web and read the two pieces to see whether either guy was actually making any sense, or if either or both were selling sour grapes.

I suppose we ought to be used to hearing about the deaths of this or that institution. History itself was declared at an end as recently as 1992. I guess that was premature. A few years ago, irony was deemed over—but that turned out to be . . . well, ironic. The Republicans, then the Democrats, then the Republicans again have been pronounced deceased for years. (Richard Nixon was taken for burnt toast after losing the governorship of California in 1962, but then . . . . Well, maybe that’s not such a great example.) Detroit’s auto industry was mourned and nearly buried just a few months ago. Broadway itself has been on its deathbed for decades, if you listen to certain critics, journalists, and other croakers who nicknamed it “The Fabulous Invalid” after Kaufman and Hart’s 1938 play about New York theater. In 1953, Oscar Hammerstein II wrote, “The theatre is dying, The theatre is dying, The theatre is practically dead!” (Me and Juliet) and Simon and Garfunkle asked the musical question, “Is the theater really dead?” (“The Dangling Conversation”) in 1966. LaChiusa didn’t actually mean, however, that the musical was totally dead and gone with the wind (as Cole Porter wrote in another context). Dying, maybe; breathing its last. Living on borrowed time. As we can see, five years on, there are still musicals on our stages, both on Broadway and elsewhere. (I saw one just the other night.) It isn’t the production of musicals whose demise LaChiusa had proclaimed anyway. The great oldies were still being revived then (Pacific Overtures, Wonderful Town) just as they are now (South Pacific, West Side Story). It was the art and craft of creating great new musicals whose obit LaChiusa was announcing.

Have a look yourselves, at least at LaChiusa's article (Opera News, August 2005), and see if you agree, but the brouhaha looked more to me like sour grapes than an honest appraisal. Shaiman, dubbing LaChiusa “The Coroner Of Broadway,” was most upset that LaChiusa was criticizing other theater workers as if his offense weren't that he might be wrong about the American Musical but that he was disloyal. "I was surprised,” Shaiman said in the New York Times, “that he would go so on record to badmouth so many of the people working alongside of him, all with the same goals.” The Hairspray composer-lyricist didn’t put up much of a defense for the musical form itself. The Times characterized the contretemps as “a juicy, old-fashioned feud” and Variety proclaimed, “There’s a cat fight in Shubert Alley.” The fight generated more heat than light, to be sure: LaChiusa had a temper tantrum and Shaiman threw a hissy fit!

What LaChiusa said was that the big, popular new musicals on the stages of Broadway and around the country aren’t “real” musicals. He held up The Producers and Hairspray as exemplars of these pale copies of the past greats, saying that such shows “[i]n no way . . .aspire to be the next West Side Story or Sunday in the Park with George.” They are all faux-musicals, which LaChiusa defined as “musicals based on formulae” that don’t “transcend their source material” and therefore end up “facsimiles of the real thing.” He even waxed quite professorial:

A philosopher might consider them simulacra: Plato’s “copy of a copy,” a fake that seems more real than the real thing. . . . No aesthetic is involved in creating the faux-musical, and it’s pointless to disparage the effort or claim that they prove the American Musical is dead. The best of them are exacting copies of copies; they fool the eye and ear to perfection.

But LaChiusa decides which shows are true musicals and which are faux on the basis of whether he likes them or not, it seemed to me. It's very, very subjective. As Shaiman pointed out, though, LaChiusa's assertions were "stated as fact." Shaiman was incensed that LaChiusa “places it down in his article in such a scholarly fashion, to make it seem that this is fact. I'm not sure that he ever says 'In my opinion' or 'Just not my cup of tea.'" LaChiusa listed some criteria, but first, the positive characteristics could all apply to the shows he dismissed (if you let them) and second, the negative ones could also apply to some top-notch shows of the past (which LaChiusa didn't mention, so I wonder how he feels about them)—My Fair Lady, Kismet, Carousel, just for instance. For example, LaChiusa disparaged what he (and many others, too) calls "jukebox musicals" because they string together songs from an outside source and then try to hang a flimsy libretto/plot on them. He went as far back as Mamma Mia! (2001) and Contact (2000) to illustrate his complaint, but I wonder about the work of Robert Wright, who had died the month before LaChiusa’s essay appeared, and George Forrest. They recycled the "songs" of Alexander Borodin and Edvard Grieg for successful musicals Kismet (1953, Best Musical Tony; book by Charles Lederer and Luther Davis; 583 performances) and Song of Norway (1944; book by Milton Lazarus; 860 performances), respectively. By LaChiusa's definition, they're really "jukebox" shows, but how do they measure up in his estimation of the "real" musical? Is it all right to reuse the music of classical composers, but not contemporary or pop writers? It’s true that most jukebox shows have failed both with the reviewers and with audiences; recent examples like Lennon (91 total performances in 2005) and The Times They Are A-Changin’ (Bob Dylan; 63 performances in 2006) went down in flames along with many others. But Movin’ Out (Billy Joel; 1331 performances in 2002-05) and Jersey Boys (Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons; over 2040 performances since 2005, and still going; Best Musical Tony) have caught on with audiences here and around the country (they’re popular touring and rep company productions), and added something either dramatic (a book for Jersey Boys by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice that “catches the very texture, almost the actual smell, of its time”) or theatrical (the rock-ballet story-telling of Twyla Tharp in Movin’ Out that “fits no pigeonhole”) to the canon of American musical theater.

I’m no fan of ABBA or Mamma Mia! and jukebox musicals are, on the whole, not my taste, so I can’t entirely dispute LaChiusa’s estimation of the genre. The fact that most of them sink—even Tharp couldn’t duplicate the success of Movin’ Out with this year’s Come Fly Away, her attempt to make a dance play from the music of Frank Sinatra which, though still running, hasn’t met with general endorsement—suggests that neither the critical community nor the audience pool has embraced the form. But Unchain My Heart, a musical based on the 2004 film Ray using the music of Ray Charles to tell its story (so it’s both a jukebox musical and a “movical”), is coming to New York with a book by Suzan-Lori Parks. Since the Pulitzer Prize-winner for Topdog/Underdog is no slouch when it comes to innovative playwriting, Unchain My Heart, which had a try-out run (as Ray Charles Live!) at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2007, is almost guaranteed to contain some surprises. (The original book is under revision, so the final script isn’t known, but Parks, whose first libretto this is, reportedly played with temporality in the Pasadena version—Charles has returned from the dead to record a last album—and may be applying more of her avant-garde proclivities for Broadway.) LaChiusa rejects the whole genre, which is both reductive and, perhaps, premature. We’ll have to see what Parks comes up with, but even the minimally inventive jukebox form can have its contributions to the American Musical today when put into the right hands.

LaChiusa spent a lot of print denigrating Tharp’s Movin’ Out because “choreography creates the libretto, and not vice versa.” On his continuum of real musical to faux-musical, Movin’ Out is “the real thing,” LaChiusa said, “a real ballet, that is, though it longs to be musical theater.” (He did begrudge that Movin’ Out “is about something: the terrible cost of war.”) LaChiusa also dismissed John Weidman and Susan Stroman’s Contact (though we’ll see shortly that this judgment is suspect for its own reasons), another “dance play.” He bemoaned that Contact won a Best Musical Tony even though there was no live music or singing and the music and lyrics were not original. (LaChiusa did acknowledge that the show’s creators didn’t actually call Contact a musical; “the critics chose to,” LaChiusa charged.) Though he doesn’t cop to it, it seems to me that the composer’s objection to these kinds of shows is not so much that they are made from collections of someone’s pre-existing songs, but that music and lyrics aren’t the drivers of the production—dance is. “I write musicals,” declared LaChiusa early in his essay, but what he really meant is the he writes the songs and book for musicals. Could he be miffed that there are shows, however worthy, that don’t spotlight his work and the work of others like him? We know that that’s not his only complaint because he also insults other composers and librettists—like Shaiman and Mel Brooks—but could he be afraid that another artist might be poised to take a prominent role in making American Musicals of substance and artistry: the choreographer? Dance has long been an important part of the American Musical, beginning with the innovative choreography of Agnes de Mille in Oklahoma! (1943) and arguably reaching a pinnacle in West Side Story (1957). “I’m old-school about what makes a musical a musical,” wrote LaChiusa. “Lyric, music, libretto, choreography—all work in equal parts to spin out the drama.” Sure, but dance has always been subservient to the book and the music, a partner, perhaps, but a junior partner. In fact, a few years earlier, LaChiusa stated flatly that “a musical demands that the music and libretto function as equal partners,” making no mention of dance at all. Choreography didn’t carry the narrative or the production outside of traditional ballet. (“Out of My Dreams” was just a single scene in Oklahoma! that was enacted through dance.) What might happen if dance began to carry the drama itself, the way Tharp used it in Movin’ Out? The late Peter Stone, onetime president of the Dramatists Guild, once observed that “the choreography of musicals is sort of at a dead end” and that Jerome Robbins had tried unsuccessfully to take the step of moving into “ballet in musicals.” But what if the new “dance plays” were the start of that next step—to make musicals where choreography carried the narrative? (The Chinese have a performance form called “dance drama” which is neither ballet nor Beijing opera.) Could LaChiusa be looking into a future in which, not having gotten fully into the room himself, he sees his potential for standing next to the greats of Musical Theater Past diminished?

Since LaChiusa cited The Producers and Hairspray as his prime examples of the faux-musical, let me address them briefly. LaChiusa said that both shows “celebrate” “the premise that musicals are stupid.” I just don’t see that at all. (I checked some of the reviews of both plays, and none of the ones I read thought so either.) Hairspray isn’t even about theater, so if LaChiusa feels it’s making fun of musicals, it’s embedded somewhere in the subtext (though he pretty much denies these plays have anything so profound as a subtext); otherwise, he’s interpolating a context that’s not really there. Hairspray makes fun of a lot of things—racism, “weight-ism,” dishonesty, religious fanaticism, ‘60s fashions, TV—but not theater. There’s a general sense of light-hearted irony, derived as much from John Waters’s original screenplay as from the adaptation, but it’s not mean-spirited and its intent isn’t to shame those who subscribe to a less candy-colored view of the world than the play presents but to remind us that there’s a “right thing to do”—and a little music and dance can’t help but get us there. Okay, the theme is pretty low-intensity, but that’s not a fault. As another light-hearted musical reminds us, “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” In fact, Hairspray is redeemed (if it needs to be) by its placement of the issue of size and our fear of fat people in the same frame as racism. The Producers, which is about theater, is no more poking mean fun at musicals than are Kiss Me Kate or Annie Get Your Gun, both musical comedies that take a wry look at show biz. In fact, I believe Mel Brooks was paying homage to Broadway and the musical. It’s not musicals he says are stupid, it’s investors in musicals. (“There’s a sucker,” sings the title character in Barnum, “born every minute.” Can I get an "Amen"?) If we take that literally—LaChiusa said that musicals “can never be realistic theater”—we have to believe that producers are all dishonest and conniving.

LaChiusa objected to the songs in both plays because, he said, they “seem to endorse the hateful operatic adage: no one listens to lyric.” Really? I haven’t heard The Producers in a while, but I recently listened to the score of Hairspray and I found Shaiman and his collaborator Scott Wittman’s songs witty and funny, perfectly in the vein of the show as a whole. They weren’t writing arias, after all; they were writing songs to evoke the early rock ‘n’ roll of 1962. I lived through that period (and had a damn fine collection of 45’s, too!)—I was the same age as the teens in the play, in fact (15 going on 16, as the song goes)—and I watched American Bandstand, the national counterpart of the Baltimore TV dance show in the play. Even LaChiusa himself stated: “[A] great song is something we think we’ve heard before but haven’t.” Shaiman and Wittman’s songs all sound like what I remember from those pre-Beatles days, from the Philly sound to Motown (even a Sinatra-esque number for the oldsters), except the Hairspray lyrics are more knowing, more pointed. (The Times called them “canny”; I think that’s right on.) I don’t have the musical background to put this in my own terms, so I’ll borrow what Ben Brantley said, because I think he nailed it:

Mr. Shaiman, the show's composer and its co-lyricist with Mr. Wittman, isn't sending up the music of the age of “American Bandstand.” Nor is he simply replicating it. What he's doing instead is taking the infectious hooks and rhythms from period pop and R & B and translating them into the big, bouncy sound that Broadway demands.

If the score was reminiscent of the work of others from 45 years ago, that’s because it’s part of the plot and fits the characters—just how a musical’s score is supposed to work. (The dances, too—despite LaChiusa’s disparaging characterization of that, as well—were spirited evocations of the steps I did in middle and high school.) No, they’re not Sondheim songs. But Hairspray isn’t Sweeney Todd, either; it has it’s own dynamic and character, and the score suits it precisely for me. As for The Producers, its songs are also right for the material. They make reference to other Broadway songs, but shouldn’t they, considering the plot? Because Producers is a farce, the songs are parodies—but they’re not travesties, which is what they’d be if Brooks were saying that musicals are silly. The Producers is silly—farces are—but I don’t think Brooks, who’s professed a love for the Broadway musical, is saying that the form is.

As Shaiman observed, LaChiusa also made a wry face because both Producers and Hairspray, the stage musicals, were being filmed. That's a film from a play from an original movie—which somehow is unworthy in his eyes. Shaiman asked about Mame, which was a book, then a play, then a movie, then a musical, then a movie musical—but I wonder if citing Mame was the best way to make Shaiman's point. I suspect LaChiusa would dismiss Mame in the same way he dismissed Wicked as a “Broadway blockbuster.” But what about MFL? It was a play, then a movie, then a musical play, then a musical movie. (It skipped the book phase, I'll admit—though it was a Greek myth!). Is that an unworthy theater life? Is MFL a faux-musical? I wouldn't say so, but it seems to meet LaChiusa's criteria for one. (Popularity and even critical success aren't aspects of his criteria. In fact, financially successful faux-musicals seem to irk LaChiusa the most—which is where the sour grapes come in. His own shows, which I assume he considers "true" musicals, have been mostly box-office flops—and also had middling critical appeal, as I recall—although LaChiusa was nominated for seven Tonys and has won two Obies. Shaiman, a Tony-winner for Hairspray, really ripped him on this!) There was a time, several decades ago now, when stage musicals were almost always put on film. Since many musical plays were drawn from straight plays, it’s not unlikely there was also a film of the non-musical predecessor, too. I could name many, but I’ll settle for just one: Cabaret, surely a true musical, was a stage musical in 1966, then it was a film musical in 1972. Before all that, it was a drama, I Am a Camera, in 1951 and then a movie in 1955. How does that history diminish any of the four versions of the story, all of which were themselves drawn from a book of tales, Berlin Stories, published by Christopher Isherwood in 1945.

LaChiusa further seems to have a serious problem with “movicals,” shows adapted from movies. But how is adapting a movie really any different from adapting a straight play? I agree with Shaiman here: “I honestly don’t understand why people [keep] harping on this,” he said in a later interview. “A great story is a great story.” (As evidence, I offer Carnival!, based in 1961 on Lili, Sweet Charity from 1966, based on Nights of Cabiria, and even A Little Night Music, Sondheim’s great 1973 musical drawn from Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night.) For decades, from its earliest days, the American Musical was nearly always an adaptation of a straight play. Not until its recent history were musicals written from original material—1776 (1969), I guess is an early example, though Pal Joey (1940) and Guys and Dolls (1950) were taken from non-dramatic sources (short stories and newspaper columns); On the Town (1944) was based on a ballet (Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free). Oklahoma! was Green Grow the Lilacs, Carousel was Liliom, Most Happy Fella was They Knew What They Wanted, West Side Story was, of course, Romeo and Juliet, and so on. (LaChiusa even pointed out that Rent, which he counts as a true—though uncompleted—musical, was adapted from "one of the greatest musical-theater inventions, La Bohème.") Okay, quality certainly depends on the way the adaptation is handled, but LaChiusa didn't say anything about this in his criteria. In fact, he set aside "the quality of creative talent involved" when he made his judgments. It sounded to me like there's a prejudice against movies as a source, as opposed to plays or prose lit. Is it because movies are pop culture and plays are high culture (though not always in either case)? My, my—that's elitist prejudice, isn't it? LaChiusa’s list of faux-musicals includes Lion King, and I would debate him there: Julie Taymor's stage "adaptation" isn't just a straight "simulacrum," as he dubs them, of the film; even the music is different. LaChiusa differentiates between "theater" and "theatricality"—the former is good, the latter bad—and I see Taymor's work in TLK as true, thorough theater, not just theatricality. That's the problem with LaChiusa's points: they're highly subjective and debatable. Why is his judgment in this instance any better than mine? It isn't!

One big problem with LaChiusa’s position is that it isn’t consistent. In the 2005 essay, the composer dismissed Contact as a pastiche like the jukebox musicals and plays based on movies like The Producers and Hairspray, mere “simulacra” of true musicals. But four years earlier, in a panel debate for the Drama Desk, LaChiusa took the positive side of the question “Resolved: The American Musical Has Entered a New Golden Age.” Guess what plays LaChiusa named to demonstrate what the Drama Desk News reported he characterized as the “exciting new musical theater” being staged? The Full Monty, a play taken from a film; Riverdance, an all-dance entertainment with no book or narrative; and, finally, Contact itself, which LaChiusa called “experimental” back in ’01. (Just to make my point all the stronger, the artist who would present himself as a stern purist in ’05, dubbed MTV music videos as “an offshoot of the Broadway musical.” In 2005, he couldn’t tolerate musical plays adapted from Hollywood films, but in 2001, he saw the Broadway musical reflected in the lowly music video!) The musicals of 2001, LaChiusa proclaimed, were “big and splashy, intelligent, experimental, provocative, and controversial” which “tapp[ed] into their culture in bold, sometimes disturbing ways” fusing tech “with artistic wizardry.” I wonder what happened in the four intervening years to cause such a complete flip-flop?

Incidentally, Shaiman noted that LaChiusa himself wrote a musical play based on Medea: Marie Christine. (“How could you! Don't you know it's been filmed??!! How dare you recycle that old story!”) Ripping off Euripides is okay, but ripping off John Waters (even with his connivance) isn't? Marie Christine, as it happens, ran about two months in 1999-2000, including previews. (The Wild Party ran three months in 2000.) Aside from audiences, the critics didn't care much for it, either, as I recall. (But, then, critical and box-office success is not a criterion for "true" musical status. LaChiusa's estimation is. Harrumph!)

LaChiusa's whole attitude reminded me of the column Robert Patrick wrote in the Times in November 1988 trying to argue that Samuel Beckett was a lousy playwright—I think he dared to call him a "hack"—and shouldn't get the critical acclaim and attention he gets, except that critics had all bamboozled us into thinking he was important. (See my counterargument to Patrick in “Is Waiting for Godot Trash?,” ROT, 17 April 2009.) Mike Nichols’s all-star production of Godot (F. Murray Abraham, Bill Irwin, Steve Martin, Robin Williams) was on stage at the time, and I figured Patrick was jealous because he couldn't get arrested, must less produced. (Deservedly so, I suggested in an opinion I wrote a bit earlier for the Rockefeller Foundation.)

Shaiman's response, “Me, Marc Shaiman responds to Michael John La Chiusa,” was an "open" e-mail he posted on All That Chat, the chat room of Talkinbroadway.com, with the intent that LaChiusa would see it. (It had originated as an e-mail he sent to theater friends such as director Joe Mantello, playwright Terrence McNally, producer Margo Lion, and librettist Thomas Meehan because Shaiman didn't know LaChiusa's e-mail address and hoped someone would forward the message to him. His original response was later posted by one of his correspondents and included some funny, and nasty, asides and personal comments that were excised from the public posting. A lot of this was pretty catty, but in one paragraph opening Shaiman cut from the public letter; he wrote: “Good God John . . . er, Michael . . . er, John . . . er, Michael John . . . .” Genius it’s not, but I confess, it handed me a chuckle. The open letter is no longer available, but the unexpurgated version is still at http://www.broadwayworld.com/board/printthread.cfm?thread=862550.) It was pretty much all defensive and self-serving; he mainly addressed the charges LaChiusa leveled at Hairspray. (Shaiman mostly wrote stuff that pretty much means, 'Oh, yeah? Sez you!' though he did make a few points along the way. The Mame point isn't bad; I just think he might have chosen a weak example—or, at least one that was open to challenge by LaChiusa.)

LaChiusa also had some points—certainly it's hard to deny that the musical has slipped since the Golden Age. Many of his general criticisms of the current state of American theater is valid and accurate, but they’re not new—and don’t really bear on the possible death of the American Musical. On the surface, you could disparage some shows as faux—if you could nail down some criteria to define the label. But in the end, LaChiusa's whole screed was just that—a personal diatribe against a lot of successful (and expensive) musicals that he just doesn't like. His criteria for what’s faux is pretty much in Potter Stewart territory: I know it when I see it. As Shaiman justifiably—if vulgarly—wrote of LaChiusa: "I just have to remind myself what the[y] say about opinions and assholes, everyone has one. But who asked to see yours?"

Not that I could hold Shaiman up as an example of a great theater composer; but is he somehow not legitimate because he’s not Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, or Fred Ebb? LaChiusa said of Hairspray and the other plays he disparages that they deliver “what the audience thinks a musical should deliver,” suggesting that we’ve been bamboozled or don’t know any better. Well, if you’ve read “A Broadway Baby” on ROT (22 September), you know that I saw many of those great oldies and hold them in special esteem, so I pretty much do know what a true musical is. Hairspray isn’t great Musical Theater, but it’s good Musical Theater—and it’s as real as, say, The Boy Friend or Girl Crazy. (It even has a little more to say than those fillips.)

By the way, LaChiusa actually concluded that the American Musical wasn't really dead—it was just absent from Broadway. It lives, he asserted, "in the nonprofits, in opera houses, in school cafeterias in Vermont, in basements in Boston, it’s alive and well—far away from the economics of Broadway." I don't know for sure, of course, but that sounds a lot like wishful thinking to me. He made a very valid—but not original—point that the economics of commercial theater—both on and Off Broadway—are helping kill the musical. But that's also helping kill the straight comedy and the serious play, too. And we all already knew that.

Now, I won’t say that the American Musical has entered a new Golden Age. That would be patently untrue. In the actual Golden Age, the ‘30s through the ‘60s, there were always a half dozen or more musicals on Broadway and three or four new ones opened each season. Of those, at least one or two, and often more, became classics. There were composers and librettists who were world-famous on the same level as the greatest playwrights; there were true musical stage stars who spent their whole careers on Broadway and in Broadway musicals. Pop singers covered show songs, right up to the Beatles (1963’s “Till There Was You” from The Music Man); we don’t hear that very much these days. The American Musical was our gift to world culture, next to jazz, and only we could do it. That hasn’t been true for a while now. Our musical stages are filled more with revivals and imports than native creations and of the few new American musicals presented on Broadway or even Off-Broadway, most are wan and lackluster. But the form’s not dead, either. I’ve recently admitted that my first love in theater were musicals, so maybe my prejudice is showing—but I don’t think so, at least not entirely. I feel like composer-lyricist David Yazbek (whose Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is on LaChiusa’s list of faux-musicals) when he likened the situation to the 1941 movie Sullivan’s Travels. A popular director of Hollywood comedies wants to make a serious movie of social significance and Yazbek suggested, "Maybe LaChiusa wants to make 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' and maybe Shaiman wants to do 'Ants in Your Pants of 1938.'" He concluded, "As long as it's good, I'll take either one"; me, too.

First of all, unlike LaChiusa, I applaud a good entertainment. South Pacific was not only a Tony-winning musical but a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama—but not all good theater has to pay off on that exacta. Some high-minded plays don’t work very well as theater, as Shaiman was blunt enough to point out. “Maybe if certain theatrical undertakers stopped trying to be Stephen Sondheim, we could all 'rest in peace,'” Shaiman dryly conjectured in reference to LaChiusa’s remark that contemporary musicals lack aspiration. “If the musical is dead,” Peter Stone, librettist of 1776, Woman of the Year, and Titanic, among others, remarked in the New Yorker, “LaChiusa . . . has put many nails in its coffin. Ersatz seriousness is as deadly as ersatz frivolity. . . . In his earnestness, LaChiusa displays the fallacies of the avant-garde temperament. His own over-serious musicals show how hard joy and frivolity are to make.” Having watched a spectator nod off at LaChiusa’s Marie Christine while a scene played out right in the seats next to him, Shaiman scolded LaChiusa: “[I]t is MY opinion that you made the CARDINAL sin of bad theatre. You BORED the audience.” Now, I can’t confirm Shaiman’s appraisal of Marie Christine because I didn’t see it, but the principal stands. LaChiusa implied that entertaining theater “still should be theater” and I say that good theater must still be entertaining. In 1999, LaChiusa even said that theater “does have the fundamental responsibility to entertain. You can write about the tragic demise of American culture as we know it, but don’t be boring.”

In 1999, LaChiusa also wrote with delight about the “two styles of conventional musicals”: “There are the fun-only shows with skeletal books on which to hang pop tunes, and there are the operettas rooted in European tradition, with sweeping music and story.” The Producers has nothing to be ashamed of, whatever its origins and sources. Good, raucous fun is to be cherished, not denigrated. What Shaiman called “the ‘E’ word” should not be anathema in the American theater. Spamalot, which LaChiusa rejects with twice the opprobrium he heaps on Hairspray and The Producers—he calls it “faux faux, a parody of a parody”—falls into the same category for me: terrific entertainment. Remarking on his own Opera News essay, LaChiusa said in the New York Sun, “There’s nothing wrong with mindless entertainment. Just don’t call it art.” Hardly “mindless,” I say, anything from the Pythons is bound to be more substantive than LaChiusa gives it credit for.

Second, there are exciting ideas being tried and developed, both here in New York City (often Off-Broadway or even Off-Off-Broadway) and in rep companies across the country. Although Steven Suskin, a former Broadway producer and general manager and lately a columnist for Playbill, reviewer for Variety, and author of books on Broadway music and musicals, doesn’t think we’re entering a new Golden Age for the musical, he does believe that emerging writers are working in new directions “and pushing the musical to places it hasn’t gone before.” I’ve mentioned Unchain My Heart with its book by an exciting young playwright, Suzan-Lori Parks, which is coming from California. A few seasons back was Urinetown—with a plot about pay toilets, of all subjects—which began Off-Off-Broadway (as part of the 1999 New York International Fringe Festival) and moved though Off-Broadway (2001; Best Book and Lyrics Obies) to Broadway (2001; Best Book and Score Tonys); and last season’s Tony-winner for Best Original Score (and a Pulitzer Prize-winner as well) is the current Next to Normal, a musical play that was developed at the Second Stage Theatre in New York City and reworked for a second try-out at Arena Stage in Washington, and deals with mental illness. Things no musical play of the Golden Age would ever have touched on are forming the basis of some new plays.

And, third, I’m not ready to dismiss so early the new forms that writers are working with, including the emerging dance play, the jukebox musical, which, if you discount the two oldies I mentioned, is really a phenomenon that only began in the mid-‘80s and deserves time to shake down, and the movical, which, as I’ve said, I don’t really see as much different than musicals based on straight plays. Along with the jukebox shows I’ve already discussed, the movical Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993; multiple Tonys), with book by Tony- and Pulitzer-winning playwright Terrence McNally and music and lyrics by Tony-winners John Kander and Fred Ebb, not only deals with homosexual love in the confines of a men’s prison, a pretty brave topic for a Broadway musical, but does so while “celebrating the theatrical impulse and its ability to remake the world.” That was David Richards in the New York Times, and he went on to say:

"Kiss of the Spider Woman" doesn't just assert their [the show’s creators’] collective belief in the transforming and redemptive properties of theater. It embodies that belief. What the musical does and what it says are one and the same. Work and thesis are indissolubly wedded.

That sure sounds like a work with the standards of an old-fashioned musical drama treating new-fashioned ideas. Okay, granted, these kinds of shows are unhappily rarer today than they were 50 years ago, and that’s to be lamented. The economics of theater and the loss of courageous and adventurous producers like Kermit Bloomgarden, Alexander H. Cohen, and Emanuel Azenberg who were true men of the theater before they were men of business are in great part to blame, undoubtedly. But my point here is that LaChiusa’s ready to put the pennies on the form’s eyes and I say, There’s life in the old gal yet! In a weakened state, perhaps, but dead? Not bloody yet, mate! Like Mark Twain said of himself, the report of the musical’s death is an exaggeration. Whether it will revive, or stay in its invalid state, or get weaker and finally pass away, I don’t have the expertise to gauge. But for now, the American Musical’s still around and making an impact.

[Marc Shaiman is also the composer of the up-coming movical,
Catch Me If You Can, which is scheduled to open at the Neil Simon Theatre in April 2011. Michael John LaChiusa has several new openings in the near future: The Public Theater and the Dallas Theater Center have announced a co-production in 2012 of Giant, adapted from Edna Ferber’s novel, which had its world première at the Signature Theater in Arlington, Virginia, in 2009; the Transport Group will stage the première of Queen of the Mist starting in October 2011; the same Off-Broadway company will begin performances in March 2011 for a revival of Hello Again; and in January 2011, a group of young performers will present “The LaChiusa Project,” a cabaret of the composer’s songs, at the West Bank Cafe.]