29 January 2012

"Are the Arts a Luxury?"

by K.C. Boyle

[Once again I find myself republishing an article from the magazine of the musician’s union. Local 802’s Allegro has so often shared my views lately, on a number of topics related to the arts and culture, that it’s become something of a surprise when an issue arrives without an article that I want to reuse. Last September, K. C. Boyle, the Public Relations and Political Director of Local 802, expressed the union’s position on the war on culture in the city budget arena and its unpleasant repercussions for the arts in our schools. ROT readers will know that this is subject about which I have strong feelings. (See my own “Degrading the Arts,” 13 August 2009; and “Disappearing Theater,” 19 July 2010; as well as Bob Youngblood’s “The Theater Problem in Education,” 21 November 2011; and "The Arts Are Under Attack (Again!)" by Paul Molloy (also from Allegro), 22 May 2011. ~Rick]

Of course not – but it's time the city woke up and realized it.

When times are bad, teachers and the arts make easy targets. True to form, New York City has indeed cut spending on education during this recession. However, this has not gone down without a fight. There have been fierce battles between concerned teachers, parents and elected officials.

In the end, the city’s budget cuts did not produce teacher layoffs but still resulted in a 2.4 percent average cut to the city’s schools.

Although it is not entirely clear which programs each individual school will cut right now, watchdog groups such as the Center for Arts Education have concluded that art and music education are the most likely to see a decrease in funding. Furthermore, in June, the center released a study that indicates arts education has become a clear target for spending cuts at the Department of Education.

According to the study, funds for musical instruments and arts supplies have dropped by nearly 80 percent or $8.4 million over the last four years. In addition, the study also found that 23 percent of New York City public schools have no full or part-time licensed art teachers.

"Schools are really disinvesting in a well-rounded rich curriculum that provides students with less of an opportunity to develop innovative and critical thinking skills," said Doug Israel, the director of research and policy at the Center for Arts Education. Israel also pointed out "New York City Public Schools are only spending on average $2 per student on art supplies and musical instruments. So the question is, what can you really buy with $2? A pack of guitar strings or a box of crayons?"

In the city that many consider to be the art and music capital of the world, there is no shortage of advocates speaking out against the city’s current educational policies.

Some critics insist that teachers and principals have been forced to focus more on standardized test scores than on a well-rounded liberal arts education that emphasizes the importance of fine arts and music in addition to standard disciplines such as math and science.

"When principals are being evaluated on performance, the first place people are going to cut are art and music, things they may think are not a part of standard education," said New York City Council member Robert Jackson, who also serves as the chair of the Education Committee.

Despite the decline in arts education spending, Mayor Bloomberg often cites graduation rates – which have risen over 40 percent since 2005 – as an indicator that public schools are heading in the right direction.

Critics believe the majority of the 1.1 million New York City students are unprepared for college. "While we may be moving more students out of high school, they may not necessarily be prepared for that next level of work," said the Center for Arts Education’s Doug Israel.

In June, Mayor Bloomberg himself announced that although graduation rates are on the rise, close to 65 percent of students are still not prepared for college. His conclusion was based on criteria established by the New York State Regents Board which requires students to achieve a score of 80 or above on state exams.

While much can be said about the subjectivity of test scores and statistics, many education advocates point out that students and parents feel that arts education is an essential component to a rich liberal arts education.

"Parents who know about art, know that a well-rounded education is best for students," said Council member Jackson. City officials also acknowledge an uphill battle with funding art education as the nation emerges from a deep recession. With another rocky budget season on the horizon next year, Jackson urges arts advocates to keep the pressure on in an effort to avoid catastrophic cuts next year.

To get involved in these efforts, contact my office at Kboyle@Local802afm.org or (212) 245-4802, ext. 176.

[This story originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of Allegro (111.9), the magazine of the New York City musicians’ union (AFM Local 802). For reprint requests, send an e-mail to editor Mikael Elsila at Allegro@Local802afm.org.]

24 January 2012

Notes on Reading

by Kirk Woodward

[As I promised back in December, Kirk Woodward has favored ROT with another piece of writing to share with the blog’s readers. He addresses the act of reading this time, but he takes a somewhat unique point of view. I think you’ll find it interesting to contemplate this activity Kirk’s way—I know I did—and it may spur you to look at your own reading process a little more carefully than we usually do.

[I will take this opportunity to note that I took a slightly different look at books and reading in “Books in Print,” on
ROT on 14 July 2010. The topic also came up in passing in “Library Cuts,” 29 June 2010. ~Rick]

The art of reading probably won't go away, but the details of the process are changing. I used to look over people's shoulders on the train and try to read their newspapers; now I try to see what they've got on their Kindles. Before books join carbon paper, the iceman, and phones with cords in the Land of Obsolescence, here are notes on a few peculiarities of reading.

DON'T GULP YOUR FOOD!

My wife, Pat, has been reading, with no pleasure at all, a currently extremely popular mystery, the first book in a trilogy. She was at it again today. I asked her if she was enjoying it, and she said, "Not a bit." "Have you been able to see why it's popular?" I asked. "Not at all," she said. "I'm not the slightest bit interested in the characters or the events." "Are you going to stop reading it?" "No, I'm going to read it to the last word." "Will you read the rest of the trilogy?" "Not a chance!"

Pat is engaged in obligatory reading. Having started a book, she feels she has an obligation to finish it. If we were to create a flow chart of her reading pattern, we would see that she is actually in a sort of what's known as a decision tree. The decisions run something like this:

Will you keep reading? YES or NO.

If NO, put the book down, preferably where it's surrounded by other books, and try to forget about it.

If YES, read it the way you would a book you like, OR

Do what I do – compressed reading!

In compressed reading, you refuse to admit that you won't finish the book. Instead, you push your way through, continually moving forward, not really reading for comprehension, but noting random points here and there, convincing yourself that if there's anything important to see, you will see it. (This technique, incidentally, also works with short stories. I've applied it to the fiction in The New Yorker for years.)

Is there any value in what I'm calling compressed reading? Maybe. Sometimes even a sentence or two can tell you so much about an author that you can form a fairly decent impression of what's going on just from a sample or two. The problem with this idea, of course, is that if you're forcing yourself to turn pages, eagerly anticipating the end of the book, you probably have dismissed the author already, and could care less about the writing style that the book displays.

Of course the principal reason for finishing a book by, basically, turning its pages fast is guilt. We feel we owe a book we've started the tribute of finishing it. It's almost as though books know what we're thinking. But they don't. Do they?

And are you reading all of this article?

SO WHAT HAPPENED?

Not long ago, two movie reviewers for the New York Times discussed whether it was proper for a reviewer to reveal a surprise plot twist in a film – for example (I think it's safe to use this one) that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father. To my surprise, both reviewers felt it was fine to reveal a secret in a review. Their justification was, "It's part of the movie, and we're reviewing the movie."

I don't agree with them. I feel that the basic standards of behavior apply in this case. Where are the reviewers’ manners? If someone tells you a secret, you have an obligation to keep it, and if you don’t, you have an obligation to feel really, really guilty. On the other hand, the reviewers for the New York Times seem to me to believe that they're more important than the works they're reviewing anyway, so perhaps they don't feel the usual principles of behavior apply to them. I'd be careful eating next to them, in that case – they might steal my food. And if they sat next to me on the train while I was reading a mystery, I'd worry that they'd tell me the ending when they could see perfectly clearly that I was only on Chapter Four.

However, when by myself, reading a book that contains a secret or a mystery, I don't always follow my own principle. Often, that is, I jump to the end of the book and find out who did it, who survived, or what in general happened, and then go back (maybe) and read the rest of the book.

Why do I do this? Why don't I save the ending for the end? The basic reason, I suppose, is that the older I get, the less I enjoy jolts, especially when they're well done and genuinely jolting. I’ve gotten to the point where I really hate to read about people getting hurt. (This, you can imagine, makes newspapers almost radioactive.) If we live long enough, we experience plenty of jolts in real life, and often we don’t take them as casually as we did when we were younger. If we read enough, the same principle may be true.

In my heedless youth, I admired the movie Bonnie and Clyde and could talk intelligently about its artistic values, in particular the way it forced us to acknowledge our emotional involvement in violent events. Today I can't watch a violent movie at all, and have trouble sitting through a film where anything bad happens to anyone. You would think that wouldn't leave many movies for me to see, but there are some, Woody Allen's Midnight In Paris being a recent and welcome example. You would also think that I'm not the audience today's moviemakers in general are looking for, and you'd be right.

Back to books: there is another reason I often peek ahead to see how a book ends, and this one at least makes me look slightly less like a hopeless wimp. The fact is that I don't read much fiction, not because I'm not interested in it, but because I get so involved in it that I can't do anything but read the book. Work, family, everything falls by the wayside until I've finished.

The extreme in this regard, for me, was the Harry Potter books. As I became more and more involved in the series, my first reading of each successive volume became more intense, until by the seventh (and no, I didn't look ahead to see if Harry lived – or did I? I’m not telling), my reading was non-stop, with no room for trivialities like sleeping, eating, and talking with members of my family.

Interestingly, there are people who do what I do, read the end before the beginning (or middle), but for much more respectable reasons. I have always enjoyed reading the works of George Bernard Shaw. When Shaw, who was distinguished as a reviewer of books, painting, music, and theater long before he was known as a playwright, read an unfamiliar book or play, he'd immediately open it to the last few pages. If he found those interesting, he'd go back and read the rest of the work. If he didn't, he wouldn't waste time on it. He defended this procedure as eminently sensible, and although I'm not sure how much of a logical case I could make for his approach, as a practical matter I think he’s right.


MARKS OF DISTINCTION

I am sitting here with a book called The Word of God & The Word of Man by the great Swiss Protestant theologian Karl Barth. It's not at all an elegant book, physically speaking. I bought it on Amazon for a dollar or so. Karl Barth is a great theologian, warm, insightful, brilliant. He's also one of the most prolix theologians who ever wrote. His great work called the Church Dogmatics runs to volumes, and is complex both in thought and in language. (In English, I mean; I don't read German.) His sermons (he started as a preacher, and for years after he became a professor he preached to the inmates at a local jail) are more accessible. The book I'm reading now, a collection of essays, is somewhere in the middle.

As I said, it's not a prepossessing volume. It's a paperback, published in 1957. The binding is gone; the pages are held together by glue, and they're brown and ragged on the edges. It's seen a lot of use. Most interesting, though, is the fact that it's heavily underlined and marked up, apparently by one Robert Manther, who signed his name on the inside front page.

The thing is, I can't figure out his marking system. There's no question he feels passionately about the book. Just exactly what his thinking process is, though, I can't work out.

Two frequently used marginal marks are "K" and "W". However, "K" may not be the letter K at all. It may be a vertical line, with two angled lines to indicate the passage it's marking. He appears to use "X" in the same way, to mark – double-mark? – sections. The contents of the sections seem to bear out that interpretation – they're definitely important thoughts. And what does "W" stand for? "What"?

All the sections with Ks and Xs next to them are underlined. But some sections, apparently of similar importance, are underlined without any marks in the margins.

Robert really goes to town on pages 20 and 21. In order, moving down page 20: a section is marked "SK", and it's not underlined. Then we have a passage with not one, not two, but three vertical lines and, to their left, the letter "K" underlined twice. A paragraph or so below, we have what appears to be an upward-pointing arrow but what I believe is actually a vertical line and a meandering "X", with one sentence underlined. Continuing down, we then have the words "as if" – also in the text – written in the margin.

On page 21, Robert appears at first to have struck out a sentence, but apparently he has only underlined it a little carelessly, and marked it with both "K" and "X". Then comes an underlined passage with – get this – the letter "Q" beside it. The following paragraph is heavily underlined, and its first sentence has three X's beside it. Finally, one underlined passage is followed by three randomly underlined letters, as follows: "to the great . . . ."

I haven't yet mentioned the check marks, circled asterisks, and obscure comments ("1/1 of Chr.", "V for Bakken") that also dot the text. This cascade of marks continues throughout the book. Robert didn't just start the book, he finished it. And it's clear that it means a great deal to him. His markings are full of passion and energy. Which is not to say that I understand them.

Perhaps that's just as well. Everyone who as a student bought or borrowed a used textbook knows the dangers of being seduced into paying attention to someone else's underlinings. Even if the person warns you, you can't help paying a little extra attention to the sections that someone else, well, paid a little extra attention to. If they've missed something important, or highlighted something misleading, well . . . you get the idea.

At least with Robert's complex system of notation, I don't really understand it, so its effect on my thought processes isn't intense. I will admit, though, that I'm still drawn to his underlinings.

The whole issue of abbreviated markings reminds me of an experience I had as a brand-new secretary (or as we'd say now, Administrative Assistant) at the old Time Inc., now Time Warner. My boss asked me to make an organizational chart of our area. I found some old assignment sheets and transferred their contents to a new diagram. Wherever I saw the initials TK, I put the name Tom Kennedy – one of our people – in the slot.

My boss was highly amused, and so was Tom Kennedy, when he found out that I'd assigned him a great many jobs he'd never heard of. TK, it turns out, was and for all I know still is the abbreviation at Time Inc. for "to come." You will point out that "come" doesn't begin with the letter K, and you're right, but don't tell me, tell the people at Time Inc.

Reading my Barth book turns out to be two experiences: the experience of reading Barth, and the cryptological experience of interpreting Robert's experience of the book, running parallel to my own. All reading involves interpretation. I suppose Robert's markings, whatever they mean, help me to keep that fact in mind.

And, of course, there are the existential questions. If Robert was so interested in the book, why did he give it up? Did he retire? Did he give up on metaphysics? Is he still with us at all? Perhaps that's where Barth's theology comes in. Books are, after all, always about something.

19 January 2012

'Much Ado About Nothing' (Shakespeare Theatre Company, 2011)

I was in Washington for the year-end holidays (it’s my birthday, so I usually spend it with what’s left of my family), and it’s our usual practice to go to the theater on New Year’s Eve if there’s a good play on stage somewhere that evening. (Then we go home for midnight and toast in the New Year: no big party or over-the-top celebration.) This year, we took seats at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Cuban-themed production of Much Ado About Nothing at Sidney Harman Hall, the second of STC’s two performance spaces, on Northwest F Street downtown. As a night out, even a New Year’s Eve out, it was a wonderful evening: Much Ado is my favorite Shakespeare and one of my all-time favorite plays anyway—I seldom miss a chance to check out a new production—and a director’d have to go some distance to ruin it for me, and Ethan McSweeny didn’t come close to that precipice. That doesn’t mean there weren’t some problems and mistakes—and some of McSweeny’s choices have certainly disturbed some theatergoers and professionals who are less generous than I am with this play.

The Washington Post’s Peter Marks offered, “Conceptual transplants of Shakespeare’s plays have become so routine that ‘Macbeth’ would have to be set in the Stone Age to surprise an audience with temporal or geographical tinkering.” In that mindset, McSweeny put Messina in Cuba in the 1930s. It looked and sounded terrific, but the transposition didn’t do much to enhance the play in any other way. It did no harm, however, and wasn’t even as silly as the 1985 production by this company’s predecessor, the Folger Theatre, that was set aboard the S.S. Messina in the same decade, making it seem more Anything Goes than Shakespeare. (I have, in fact, seen two other Much Ado’s at one incarnation of STC or another over the years. The second one was in 2003, a co-production with Hartford Stage set in the 1920s starring Karen Ziemba as Beatrice. That one came out Noel Coward!)

On 18 September 2009, I ran an article on ROT called “Similes, Metaphors—And The Stage,” based on a Robert Brustein essay from 1988 (which I republished on ROT; see “’Reworking the Classics: Homage or Ego Trip?’” 23 March 2011). In my article, I discussed the distinction Brustein makes between “the prosaic simile and the poetic metaphor.” “A simile production,” I interpreted, “simply shifts the time or location to an analogous one nearer our own, while a metaphorical one examines the play from the inside, ‘generating provocative theatrical images . . . that are suggestive of the play rather than specific, reverberant rather than concrete.’” McSweeny’s Much Ado, which Marks characterized as “becoming, if overly concept-dependent,” falls clearly in the simile category, which Brustein saw as an update that “depends largely on external physical changes” frequently “jollied up” with tricks and gimmicks. I won’t recap my discussion from “Similes, Metaphors,” but I’ll say that by comparison, the metaphor production is bolder and more radical in both the textual and staging changes, and the reinterpretation. Nothing profound was added to the interpretation of the play despite STC Literary Associate Drew Lichtenberg’s effort to lay out some relevancies in a program article. (The current Porgy and Bess “re-imagination,” about which I wrote on this blog on 14 January, may come closer to the metaphorical end of the spectrum, but in the end, it’s still a simile.) Let’s look at McSweeny’s presentation and see how his Much Ado makes out.

I’m sure there’s no need to summarize the play’s plot, as well known as Much Ado is. As I said, the director reset Shakespeare’s story to Cuba in the mid-1930s, a time when the island nation was itself in turmoil. The program informed us that in 1933, Cuban sugar workers, students, and intellectuals allied with the army and deposed the government. (Lichtenberg made allusions to the current uprisings in Egypt and Libya, though, of course, we don’t know the end results of those rebellions. In Cuba, the “Sergeant’s Revolt” ultimately brought Fulgencio Batista to power in Havana in an authoritarian dictatorship that lasted until 1959, when it was overthrown by the Marxist forces of Fidel Castro.) Somehow, we were supposed to find parallels between this circumstance in Cuba and the plotline of Much Ado, in which Don Pedro, a Spanish duke, is in Sicily following the defeat of his rebellious brother, Don John. Shakespeare’s city of Messina was transformed into a sugar plantation owned by Leonato. The set of McSweeny’s production was the central courtyard of Leonato’s hacienda, wonderfully wrought by Lee Savage, with the terracotta-tiled courtyard floor surrounding a small pool adorned with a statue of cupid as its fountain. Upstage, we saw the two-level balustrades of two sides of the residence itself with the main staircase beneath the portico up center and a spiral iron stairway winding directly down to the courtyard at stage right. Not only was the view scrumptiously cool and refreshing, with flowers and potted plants everywhere, but it provided an excellent playing area for the comedy, offering glorious entrances and exits and great places to hide and eavesdrop—a sine qua non of most Shakespearean comedies, especially this one. (Some wonderful uses of the plants and the fountain pool might have justified the whole design by themselves. I was incredulous when Beatrice, trying to eavesdrop on Hero and Ursula when they’re setting her up, slips into the pool and creeps underwater to the side near them to hear better. Benedick, for his turn, gets his hand caught under the rockers of a rocking chair behind which he’s trying to hide.) The fountain, which could be fitted with a wooden cover, made some very good seating spots and a useful raised platform on occasion, and the several group scenes, especially the party scenes, took terrific advantage of the layout.

Those party scenes, particularly the main one in act one when disguise plays an important role, showed off Clint Ramos’s costume design scheme to great advantage. There were some amazing masks reminiscent of what I’ve seen at West Indian American Day Parades here and the vejigantes of Carnival in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Clearly, the designers and the show’s composer (and sound designer), Steven Cahill, whose work was especially evident in the parties, had immense fun conceiving this show. Among them, they created a credible evocation of Cuba in the ’30s, with the women’s fashions especially flattering and sexy (though one detractor—and I’ll get to this aspect of the production shortly—complained that the women’s clothes weren’t vibrant enough for the milieu). Of course, the trade-off of the choice of period was that the military uniforms of Don Pedro and his soldiers were dull khaki jodhpurs and tunics with Sam Brown belts and high boots for the officers (there was lots of heel-clicking!) and puttees for the grunts, and lots of Smokey-the-Bear hats—but with the verdant hacienda set behind them, it was little enough sacrifice for the military men to give up the far more colorful and elaborate uniforms of the 16th or 17th centuries.

There was no faulting the look of the production, or the sound. Cahill composed tunes that called to mind traditional Cuban music; Don Pedro’s army apparently traveled with a campesina band—two guitarists and a bongo player—which appeared at opportune times throughout the performance. Cuban life, it seems, even among the manly men of the army, doesn’t go unaccompanied by a soundtrack! The army entered the scene each time accompanied by music (and a Cuban flag, just to be sure we remembered where we were at all times), and Dogberry’s Watch always came in singing “Guantanamera,” a 1929 patriotic Cuban song, a cappella. (Peter Marks took two occasions to knock this directorial choice, but it didn’t bother me at all. It’s silly—but they’re silly anyway, so it fit as far as I was concerned. Maybe I’m just not sensitive enough to the nuances. Wouldn’t be the first time.) When Shakespeare’s script calls for a song, in McSweeny’s Much Ado it was rendered as a Cuban ditty, often accompanied by some impromptu dancing of a rhumba or mambo beat, the kind of music and dancing that we Norte Americanos used to spice up our parties in the middle of the last century. (I can very clearly remember learning the cha-cha in the ’50 when I was taking dance lessons as a boy. My parents and their friends were all learning it, too, along with several other immensely popular Latin steps.) It all seemed more than fitting to both the setting and the style of the production and the story.

According to an early report, McSweeny was after “a hot, sexy version of the play,” but it didn’t illuminate anything that a straighter rendering of the text wouldn’t have permitted. It may be my own prejudice speaking, but I just don’t think Much Ado needs help to get across. (I played Don John in a 1979 Off-Off-Broadway showcase which was set in Renaissance Italy like Shakespeare’s original, and it was considered an excellent staging all around which a number of people told me then and later had been one of the clearest and funniest productions of the classic comedy that they’d ever seen. No help, in other words, had been needed aside from good acting and directing. Not to blow my own horn, mind you.) In addition, McSweeny didn’t just update the setting and costumes and add some salsa music, but he tweaked the script a little, adding references to Havana, pesos, and mantillas—Margaret even mentioned a Heddy Lamarr dress when she admired Hero’s wedding gown; a few characters even assumed Spanish accents. (There was some controversy over a couple of name changes intended to accommodate the shift in location, but I’ll cover that later.) None of these were very intrusive, but I tend to feel that if you have to change the text, it’s an indication that you may be making a bad choice. It’s not a rule, of course, and the smaller the changes, the less disturbing they are—but it’s a little bell that goes off. It also calls attention to itself—and therefore to the director’s hand. That’s either distracting or egotistical—or both. In any case, like the time-and-place alterations, this didn’t add anything to the interpretation of the play.

In many cases, I might even dare say most, when a director updates Shakespeare, especially to a period generally close to our own, the actors seem to take the modernization of the look as permission to slip into contemporary acting style—even soap-opera acting—treating Shakespeare’s language as conversational Realism. Either because of this or along with it, the actors often endow their characters with a minimal emotional life rather than the heightened one demanded by Shakespeare’s plays. If the actors look like characters in a 1930s movie, they may be tempted to behave like characters in a 1930s movie. Ordinary people don’t speak poetry, and, more importantly, they don’t get as passionate as Shakespeare’s characters do. Now, I won’t go so far as to say that the STC cast fell into this trap, but they all did seem to be operating in a low gear. (The fault for this may possibly be that I saw the production in what would have been its penultimate performance had it not been extended a week.) I have no idea, of course, if the same actors would have stepped up their energy level if they’d played characters from 16th-century Italy and Spain instead of 20th-century Cuba. It’s been my experience over the years that present-day actors often reduce Shakespeare and the classics to a kind of poetic Naturalism; but I feel that resetting the plays in near-modern times and circumstances helps them do that.

The acting in Much Ado was fine overall. It just wasn’t scintillating. David Emerson Toney’s Don Pedro was stalwart and commanding, especially with his resonant baritone and imposing stature, but he struck me more as a leader by circumstance than personal fortitude: he was the duke by birth, so he was the commander by right. Claudio was a nice, apparently worthy young man, but the impetuosity of youth was missing in Ryan Garbayo’s portrayal. He just wasn’t the kind of post-adolescent who’d fall madly in love in a moment, then turn on the flimsiest evidence to vituperative contempt, and then to abject repentance. (Claudio always seemed to me like Romeo if he hadn’t died in his teens.) The villain Don John, a kind of Iago manqué in my view, was played by Matthew Saldivar as nearly too scheming—too cerebral—and not driven enough to have been forced almost intestinally to overturn the happiness of his brother and Claudio—just because he has to. Much Ado is a play that turns on the passions of its characters over the tiniest provocations; it is, after all, “much ado about nothing.” I watched Margaret (Rachel Spencer Hewitt), the putatively unwitting collaborator with Borachio in the deception that convinces Don Pedro, Benedick, and Claudio of Hero’s unfaithfulness, during the accusation scene when Claudio reveals that they’d seen his fiancée at her window with another man. Margaret surely realizes at that moment what she’d done, but Hewitt made no reaction as she watched Hero being abused and rejected. Especially in this play, there should have been a spasm of shame at that moment.

The band of buffoons, Dogberry (Ted van Griethuysen), Verges (Floyd King), and the Watch (Phil Hosford as Hugh Oatcake and Carlos J. Gonzalez as George Seacoal, with Aayush Chandan and Jacob Perkins as members of the ensemble) were excellent clowns in the Shakespearean mold. I’ve seen van Griethuysen and King before in comic roles (together in 2008 as Malvolio and Feste, respectively, in an STC coproduction of Twelfth Night with Princeton’s McCarter Theatre and, most recently, King as Emperor Joseph in the Round House Theatre’s revival of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus last May); both actors are favorites in Washington (and of my mom’s in particular) and have been on one or another of the District’s stages for decades. In Much Ado, they paired up like an old-fashioned vaudeville team, with van Griethuysen’s Dogberry finishing Verges’ sentences (until the final scene, when they reversed this gag much to Dogberry’s surprise) and a decrepit, slow-moving Verges (dressed like a Gabby Hayes character and carrying an ear trumpet) following Dogberry, stout, elaborately uniformed, and draped in a Cuban flag worn as a cape, a few paces behind. The Watch, mostly wordless, were classic pantomimists, and quite wonderful all around, shuffling in with their pitchforks, rakes, and scythes shouldered like actual weapons and chanting “Guantanamera.” Mother said she was disappointed with King’s part, but that was because he didn’t have as much solo stage time as she’d have liked, not because he wasn’t great in his stunning little moments. (The Washington Post called King “that rascally scene-stealer.” I think that was only by comparison.) From an acting point of view, not considering whether the part was “worthy” of King or not, the teamwork of van Griethuysen and King was gorgeous, marvelous little comic set pieces reminiscent of a Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello bit. Unlike the rest of the company, this team sparkled.

The most significant acting pair in Much Ado, arguably, are Beatrice and Benedick, the “merry warriors” of the play. I saw Derek Smith in 1986 as Romeo in one of the first productions staged by STC artistic director Michael Kahn just after he took over the company that was then called the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger. Smith was a very young actor then, just out of Juilliard (where Kahn had been a teacher and director of the acting division), but I recall his Romeo was dynamic, passionate, and sexy—and in love with his Juliet beyond all reason. As Benedick, however, he seems not only to have aged, but to have lost his passion. This was a Benedick whose love for Beatrice wasn’t so much unleashed by his friends’ gambit, but suggested and inflated by it. When he undertakes to challenge Claudio to a duel at Beatrice’s behest, Benedick should be so incensed and so enamored of Beatrice that he’s not just willing but avid to fight with his friend and likely kill him. Smith seemed more like a man who knew he should make the offer out of duty or expectation, and could find a way out of the dilemma before he’d have to act on it. Kathryn Meisle’s Beatrice was pretty much the female flipside of this Benedick. (Meisle was a late replacement for Veanne Cox, who left the production a week before the 25 November preview opening. Cox left for the usual, euphemistic “artistic differences”; Meisle had played Beatrice at the Two River Theater Company in Red Bank, New Jersey, last September.) Both actors handled the repartee excellently, landing the jibes nicely and coming back with appropriate verve, but love wasn’t what drove it; it was more like intellectual and verbal rivalry. The affair was emblematic of the whole production: intellectually solid, but emotionally flat.

This isn’t to say that there wasn’t passion attached to STC’s Much Ado. It just was off stage instead of on. (I’m going to report this contretemps, but since I don’t have a dog in the race myself, it all seemed a little put-up and over the top to me. Maybe I’m just insufficiently sensitive to the issue.) Because of the shift in locale, two characters in Constable Dogberry’s Watch with particularly English names, Hugh Oatcake and George Seacoal, were rechristened for the production as Juan Huevos and José Frijoles. (For us non-Spanish-speakers, that’s John Eggs and Joe Beans. At first, Huevos was going to be called Juan Arroz so the pair would be Rice and Beans, but for whatever reason, that idea was abandoned.) Now, I am aware that huevos is Spanish slang for ‘balls’ or ‘testicles,’ but that wasn’t what upset Latinos in and out of the Nation’s Capital who wrote to Kahn to express their displeasure. Washington-area director José Carrasquillo wrote Kahn that the names “feel like leftover stereotypes” and that if Much Ado had been reset to the American South, “I know that Johnny Fried Chicken or Johnny Gumbo wouldn’t have made it to the stage.” The director of the theater program at Louisville, Kentucky’s Bellarmine University, Carlos Manuel, suggested that when considering renaming characters, artistic directors appear to think that “it is okay to use stereotypes because well, who is going to care: not our Anglo audiences, for sure.” So after ten days of previews and just under three weeks of regular shows, Shakespeare’s original names were restored and the programs were reprinted. (I can’t explain this, but the program booklets Mom and I got on 31 December included the Spanish names. Perhaps STC had used up the altered ones and instead of printing more, reverted to the left-over booklets from the early performances to finish out the run. On stage, of course, the English names were used.) Tlaloc Rivas, a freelance Mexican-American stage director who instigated an e-mail and letter-writing campaign condemning the decision, remarked afterwards: "Here was an artistic leader who listened to his audience and decided to do the right thing."

Several of the decision’s critics had other complaints, prompted, I imagine, by the renaming. Anna Serra, an associate professor of language and foreign studies at the District’s American University, thought that the women’s costumes were too tame for the milieu: “Don’t give me dresses with pastel colors—give me bright colors! Give me decoletage!” She was also “shocked” that the production “was set on a Cuban plantation and there was only one character who was non-white.” Aside from the fact that that wasn’t actually accurate—both David Emerson Toney, who played Don Pedro, and Mark Hairston, who played Borachio, and several members of the ensemble are actors of color (and several other cast members have Spanish surnames)—Kahn asserted that STC actively solicited Latino actors for the production, but that most “turned down” the call. As for the attempt to find funny Spanish names to echo “Oatcake” and “Seacoal,” Kahn admitted that the decision was misguided and that it “is our problem, and it will never happen again.”

14 January 2012

On "Re-Imagining" 'Porgy And Bess'

On 5 November 2010, the American Repertory Theater announced the “re-imagination” of the classic 1935 Gershwin-Heyward musical, Porgy and Bess. I didn't offer an opinion on the project at that time, though I reported the announcement to interested friends and colleagues, but I'll confess now that I had trepidations about fixing something that didn't seem broke to me. My feeling was—and is—that the original is a masterpiece as it is and I don't see any need to fix it. I figured we'd see when the reviews came out in September 2011—I guessed the New York Times would cover the Cambridge opening even though it was due in New York on 17 December (for a 12 January 2012 opening)—how well playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, composer Diedre Murray, and director (and ART artistic director) Diane Paulus succeeded, but the impulse seemed both misguided and unnecessary—an exercise in, as Stephen Sondheim puts it, arrogance.

Some time ago I ran an article on ROT confessing to being a Broadway Baby (22 September 2010), having been introduced to the Broadway musical when I was very young. I've had a special attachment to the genre ever since, especially the classics and great oldies. The ones that were before my time—like South Pacific, Oklahoma!, Carousel, Kiss Me Kate, and others—were introduced to me through my father's cast album collection (which I now have), and Porgy and Bess was one of those. I have no objectivity, no distance when it comes to those old-time shows (most of which I only saw on film in my pre-teen years, as I did the 1959 release of P&B). They're all just wonderful, and the whole idea of bowdlerizing is anathema to me, painful to contemplate. In fact, when I read that Parks was doing this rewrite, I felt a little the way I felt about Julie Taymor's work on Spider-Man: Parks was indulging her own ego because of her recently attained status as a star in her field. I hoped she wouldn't take the fall Taymor took, but I never cared about Spider-Man, whereas I do have feelings about Porgy and Bess. Though I wish Parks and the others success, I do wish they'd chosen some other project to redo and left Porgy and Bess alone.

Adaptations, as experience has proven, can yield really good theater. In 1983, Peter Brook stripped Carmen down to what he called the essentials (80 minutes); it was well received by theater critics but less so by opera and music reviewers. (He did that again with Mozart’s Magic Flute in 2010.) Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, and their collaborators, reconceived Romeo and Juliet and we got West Side Story, one of the greatest musicals of all time. Of course, Lerner and Loewe adapted Pygmalion and gave us My Fair Lady—and so on and so on. Almost all musicals, the great and the lesser, were born by adapting a straight play or some other material—including Porgy and Bess itself, which began as a novel and then a drama.

But reconceiving plays even without rewriting can have profound, and not always felicitous, results. In 1985, I saw a Much Ado About Nothing directed by John Neville-Andrews at Washington’s Folger Theatre that was set in the 1930s aboard the S.S. Messina, making it seem more like Anything Goes than Shakespeare. It wasn’t actually bad, but just silly. (How did Don John escape from a ship in the middle of the ocean?) In 1997, Washington’s Arena Stage presented Ibsen’s Ghosts, directed and designed by Romanian avant-gardist Liviu Ciulei. The director turned one of Ibsen’s prototypical realist plays into a symbolist production to disastrous consequences: nothing fit and all of Ciulei’s adaptations reeked of imposition. Arena later produced a revival of Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar Named Desire staged by Hungarian director János Szász which appeared to have been updated to the time of the presentation (2001) and performed in tune with Artaud’s theater-of-cruelty theories rather than Williams’s lyric realism. Again, the style and the text fought against one another. As I always note, however, when some director makes a mess of a script: the original's always still there for revival. No one's destroyed it. (A lesson Arthur Miller apparently didn't get in 1984 when he stopped the Wooster Group from doing their L.S.D., a travesty of The Crucible. I know he had the right to do that. I wonder if he was right to do it.) But making it different isn't the same as making it better, and if that's what Parks and her team say they were doing—improving the original—then I have to object.

(This kind of approach always reminds me of something my father used to tell me about the German translations of English literature he read as a schoolboy here in New York. They were annotated übersetzt und verbessert—“translated and improved.”)

I obviously can't address the production itself, not having seen it yet. (I’m writing this before it’s opened in New York City.) And I won't deny Parks and all the right to adapt or even bowdlerize a work, including one by the likes of the Gershwins. It's not, as someone once said to me, painting a mustache on the “Mona Lisa,” after all. (Speaking of which, even that’s been done, in a manner of speaking: In his 1919 poster of the “Mona Lisa,” Marcel Duchamp drew a beard and mustache on the model’s face—but the Dadaist did it only in his poster. Colombian artist Fernando Botero also painted his 1963 take on the Mona Lisa as a fat, grotesque girl. In both cases, though, da Vinci’s original masterwork remained in the Louvre, unharmed.) What I want to go into is the arrogance of the adapters’ rationalizations and the implications that the original can't communicate to today's audiences.

According to the ART announcement, the plan was backed by the Gershwin and Heyward estates. (George Gershwin wrote the score of P&B; DuBose Heyward wrote the libretto and collaborated with Ira Gershwin on the lyrics for the musical version. Heyward also wrote the 1925 novel Porgy, which he and his wife, Dorothy, adapted for the 1927 straight play of the same title, the source of the musical.) The Gershwin representatives objected only to the idea, proposed early in the process, of mixing some outside Gershwin songs into P&B, but that was dropped. The aim, as Diane Paulus explains it, was to turn what they saw as essentially an opera into a commercial musical play: ''The Gershwin estate was interested in a team that would take this amazing classical work, that people know as an opera,” the director affirms, “and turn it into a musical.” The musical piece was, indeed, labeled by the original collaborators as “an American folk opera,” and, as a spokesperson for the Gershwin Trust asserts, “It has had, and continues to have, a successful life in opera houses around the world,” but I, for one—I can’t speak for anyone else—never think of P&B as an opera like Carmen or La Bohème. Yes, it’s been staged by opera companies, but so have Guys and Dolls and A Little Night Music, among many, many others. In fact, opera companies, including both the Met and the New York City Opera, which have no reason to do Broadway’s job for it, have been presenting musical plays for decades, so that’s hardly a definitive criterion. Hey, many musical plays (as well as operas) have been broadcast on television. Does that make them TV shows? Of course not, that’s just silly.

(TV has experimented with the musical form for years, going back at least to the ’60s and The Monkees on NBC from 1966 to ’68 and The Partridge Family from 1970 to ’74 on ABC. Cop Rock on ABC in 1990 actually modeled its structure on the Broadway musical; it was followed in 2007 by Viva Laughlin on CBS and Fox’s Glee in 2009. Were they musical theater? No, they were still TV shows. Of course, only two of these were even remotely successful—and none qualified as high art. I can think of only one actual musical play conceived specifically for television: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella on CBS in 1957. That was a true cross-over—though it, too, was eventually bowdlerized by its own medium.)

Additionally, Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and several other of the composer’s musicals have more singing than spoken dialogue, coming close to operatic in that respect. Are they really operas in sheep’s clothing? I recently saw a terrific revival of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (see my ROT report of 22 October 2011): it’s even called an opera. So is it? I’m sure it’s been produced by opera companies in the past, but the BAM version was from the Berliner Ensemble—not an opera company. Is that definitive? Not really, but it’s suggestive. The 1964 French movie The Umbrellas of Cherbourg has no spoken dialogue in it—it’s all sung in recitative. Is it an opera? It’s had stage adaptations (in English, and not terribly successful), but I don’t know of any live opera presentations either in French or any translation.

What all of these are, I say, are unique (or nearly unique) theatrical or film experiments, innovations in musical theater or musical film, that stand on their own as successful works of genius. Porgy and Bess is like that: it’s not really an opera, despite its subtitle; but it’s not just a musical play, either—it’s one of a kind. (There are lots of things like that in the arts—and probably other fields, too.) As far as I’m concerned, those pieces all work on their own terms and don’t need to be defined so they fit into narrow, preconceived categories. Because they don’t is no rationale for revising them, editing them, changing them. They’re square pegs: they’re not going to fit in any damned round holes. The only way to make them fit is to cut away bits that don’t conform to the predetermined shape. Then they aren’t what they were anymore. Is that what we want?

When I was in grad school, I had a teacher who was a dramaturg. She’d met a young playwright one of whose early scripts was being developed for production at the theater where my teacher then worked. She admired the young writer for her idiosyncrasies and the quirky turn of mind she displayed in her writing—she was surprising and unpredictable. The playwright began to have some success and her plays began to be produced around the country, and one, which I’d read in manuscript, was coming to New York in a production from a respected regional rep company. My teacher had seen the production there and urged us to see it when it came here, but warned us that the director and producer at the rep theater had “taken out all the wrinkles.” The quirkiness had apparently frightened them, so they made the play conform to more standard structure and dramaturgy. As a consequence, the spark had gone out of the script. The production of what had been a provocative and quirky play was lackluster and wan.

When Elia Kazan made Tennessee Williams change the ending of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for the 1955 Broadway première, he may have assured the play’s commercial and critical success—but he altered or obscured the play’s original meaning and made Williams terribly unhappy. Their long and productive collaboration (six plays and two films) began to deteriorate after Cat and Williams published the play with two endings, his original one, less hopeful and reassuring and more ambiguous, and Kazan’s “commercial” one, more direct, acceptable, and comfortable. (Just to demonstrate that original concepts hang around, the 1958 film adaptation of Cat, starring Burl Ives, Paul Newman, and Elizabeth Taylor, had the Kazan ending, but I saw the stage version at the then-new Actors' Theatre of Louisville in December 1969 or January 1970 that was directed by ATL's founding artistic director, Jon Jory, and starred his father, Victor, as Big Daddy and his mother, Jean Innes, as Big Mama and used the alternative Williams ending.)

Square pegs for round holes, see?

When ART announced the new production and adaptation, which the theater is billing as The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess to differentiate it, I suppose, from the original one (though I don’t know what happened to Heyward’s contribution), Paulus explained that the Gershwin estate “wanted to make it more fully realized in terms of characters. They were eager to have a writer bring it to the audiences of today.” This is where I start to have problems. If all the producers want is to get younger spectators who don’t know the play into the theater, that’s actually a fine goal. But aren’t there ways to do that other than reconceiving the play and the characters? That’s essentially marketing—an outreach job for the dramaturg and the press agent. But Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori (who’s also won Obies and a MacArthur “genius” grant) asserts: “we're . . . crafting a piece that speaks to contemporary audiences,” declaring that the original doesn’t, and Tony-nominated director Paulus promises to make “the characters in the story more fully realized,” as if they hadn’t been three-quarters of a century ago on the Broadway stage or half a century ago on the Hollywood screen. Audra McDonald, who plays Bess, concludes that “the opera has the makings of a great love story too that I think we’re bringing to life.” Has it been dead and buried all these years, then? Then composer-musician Diedre Murray, an Obie-winner and Pulitzer finalist, proclaims: “We want to move the story of Porgy and Bess forward on its continuum, re-envisioning it for a modern perspective.” P&B is a classic, like a Shakespeare or a Sophocles: by definition, a classic transcends era and period and continues to speak to audiences through the ages. If you need to bring it to the attention of naïve audiences, show them what a wonderful and fulfilling piece of theater it is, Yes. But if you feel you need to bring it down to some lowest common denominator, to make it simple to understand and keep the 30-minute attention spans of today’s adolescent TV spectator occupied, then I shudder! I shudder at the poverty of your imagination and commitment to the art in which you’ve presumably chosen to spend your life—and I shudder for the arrogance and benightedness of your soul. Paulus also declares: “[W]e want to bring Porgy and Bess to life on the musical stage in a way that feels essential, immediate, and passionate.” I never realized that it had been dead, insignificant, distant, and cold all these years!

This is not to say that P&B is easy. It fell out of favor in the ’60s and has always suffered from charges that its portrayal of poor African Americans in depression Charleston, South Carolina, is offensive. Less worrisome, it’s also seen by true Southerners as culturally inaccurate. (I’m going to assume that readers are either familiar enough with P&B’s plot not to need a synopsis, or can find one easily on the ‘Net.) The roles are nearly all black, which was a problem for segregated theaters in the Jim Crow era of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. (Washington’s National Theater permitted integrated audiences when the play toured there in 1936, but reverted to segregated houses afterwards.) Personally, I’m not convinced that part of the impulse to “fix” Porgy and Bess now doesn’t come from a certain resentment on the part of black (and female) artists like Parks and Murray that three white men were responsible for a story written in a stage interpretation of the black vernacular of the day and a score written in imitation of black rhythms and traditions. As the New Yorker’s Hilton Als remarks, it was a situation “in which white composers and lyricists presented their ideas of blackness to one another.” (I’m not musically astute enough to know how well Gershwin did with the music—though I do know that he was known as an superb student of various musical styles—but many African-American singers covered the songs in the ensuing decades, often turning them into hits on various charts.) The musical’s popularity resurged after 1976, when the Houston Grand Opera presented a highly-regarded revival. (It won the best musical revival Tony when it transferred to Broadway—the only Tony the play’s ever won.) Difficulty, however, often comes with great art, including the classics in all genres. We don’t go around rewriting Shakespeare willy-nilly just because he’s hard to do or to follow. (Well, okay—some people do. But that doesn’t make it necessary or right.)

According to Patrick Healy, the New York Times reporter who attended some rehearsals in Cambridge in August 2011, Parks rewrote scenes, created biographical elements for the characters, composed dialogue to replace the musical recitative, and even replaced the ending with one that suggests more hope. (On that last note, Michael Musto in the Village Voice suggests some humorous changes that might be made to other well-known musicals to spiff up their conclusions. The one that tickled me the most is: “A Titanic where they avert the iceberg and keep pouring the cocktails?”) Actress McDonald, winner of four Tonys, explains that the new version “tries to deal with the holes and issues in the story that would be very, very obvious to a musical-theater audience” and a trustee for the Heyward estate speaks of “balancing the original work’s intentions with a story that is maybe more realistic for a present-day audience.” According to earlier announcements, some of George Gershwin’s score has been re-orchestrated as well. “It’s always easy to make something different out of it,” warned James Levine in 1985 when he was preparing to conduct the first Metropolitan Opera performance of Porgy and Bess. “But the trick with any masterpiece is to make use of what the genius gave you.” Healy reports that ART’s P&B company is already anticipating some resistance and, according to reviews of the Cambridge opening, some of the ART changes were later reversed.

Paulus speaks of the characters, too: “In the opera you don’t really get to know many of the characters as people, especially and most problematically Bess . . .,” who, in McDonald’s words, is “often more of a plot device than a full-blooded character.” Norm Lewis, who plays Porgy, reports that the new script provides details about how Porgy was crippled and develops the character’s desire to walk normally. (Porgy also walks with a cane in the adaptation instead of riding in the iconic goat cart of the original version, substantially changing the visual dynamic of the finale when Porgy rides off to New York City to find Bess as he and the cast sing “I’m On My Way.”) The director’s first decision was to hire Parks to “excavate” Bess in particular. From what, I wonder? It sounds as if Paulus found the character (and, by extension, the plot and the other characters, too) buried beneath tons of debris. (I’ve just written a short report on the restoration of a long-abandoned building in downtown Manhattan. Over the years, the 1882 structure was sheathed in false walls and ceilings from the 1940s and ’50s. The renovation architects plan to do a lot of excavation to uncover the original Beaux Arts detail. Is that the analogy Paulus is drawing?) As Paulus sees it, Bess isn’t “understandable” or “fully rounded.” Parks calls Porgy and Bess, the two lovers at the center of the story, “cardboard cut-out characters” and claims that “fleshing them out” is “what George Gershwin wanted” and “if he had lived longer,” he’d have “made changes, including the ending.” As one acting teacher of mine would have said, We don’t have Gershwin’s phone number. How the hell would Parks know that? Did Gershwin leave secret instructions that tell some unknown writer 76 years in the future what he’d do if he hadn’t died at 38 two years after the début?

Oh, wait! I know: she held a séance. Ohhh, Ouija board . . . .

That changed final scene bothers me, too. According to reports, Paulus’s idea is to show that Bess, who’s leaving for New York City, and Porgy have a connection and to indicate that it’s their destiny to reconnect. So Parks wrote a scene in which Bess tries to persuade Porgy to go with her (in the original, she’s trying to get away and just splits with Sportin’ Life), and then, in the last moments of the play, when in the original version Bess was already on the boat (that’s leavin’ soon) for New York, she and Porgy share a look that’s supposed to intimate that connection. Not only is that a wholly Romantic stage picture, way out of line with the play that Heyward and the Gershwins wrote, but it defies their clear intent. They wanted an ambiguous ending—that’s why Bess leaves unannounced and Porgy doesn’t know where she’s gone. (“Where’s My Bess?” doesn’t make a lot of sense in the new scenario—Porgy already knows where she’s heading.) Instead of leaving shortly after Bess, as the changed ending has it, so that we can infer that he’s only a few steps behind her, Bess has a much greater head-start in the 1935 play—and we know that Porgy’ll be damned lucky to catch up to her by the time he makes it to New York City (if he even manages to—on that goat cart). We’re not supposed to walk out of the theater knowing Porgy’ll meet up with Bess in New York. We’re supposed to walk out not knowing. This is a big difference Paulus and her team contemplated. That’s not just tweaking a little. It’s grabbing hold with both hands and ripping the heart out. That’s Kazan with Cat—though Kazan got Williams to do the rewrite: he didn’t do it himself later. Where do you get the chutzpah to do that? If Parks is in contact with George Gershwin’s ghost, my guess is he’d slap her face for that! Or at least take out a cease-and-desist order.

Now, I suppose my reaction to this effort to iron out all the wrinkles of Heyward and the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess can be dismissed as the rantings of an old fogey. I can live with that. I imagine that Paulus, Parks, and Murray would disparage me as a “Gershwin purist,” as McDonald calls people like me, out here with “their arrows in their bows, ready to shoot.” Okay. I’ve copped to being a geezer before now. I wouldn’t be alone in this case, though. Among the more illustrious (and knowledgeable) protestors (in addition to Michael Musto in the Voice) is no less a personage than Stephen Sondheim, composer and playwright of a few contemporary classics of the musical stage himself (Sunday in the Park with George, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, to name just three). I’m going to report a little of what he wrote, after Patrick Healy’s 7 August report on the production appeared, in a letter to the New York Times, published on 14 August 2011, because I totally agree with the composer’s opinions. In fact, I can't find an argument against Sondheim's points.

First, Sondheim was disturbed by the omission of Heyward’s credit from the new title of the ART revival. Why is the sole librettist and co-lyricist being ignored this way? “More dismaying,” Sondheim writes, is the new creative team’s “disdain” for the original work. Of Diane Paulus’s assertion that we don’t get to know “the characters as people,” the playwright complains: “Putting it kindly, that’s willful ignorance. These characters are as vivid as any ever created for the musical theater, as has been proved over and over in productions that may have cut some dialogue and musical passages but didn’t rewrite and distort them.” When it comes to the “backstories” that Paulus has asked Parks to supply, Sondheim explains, “She fails to recognize that Porgy, Bess, Crown, Sportin’ Life and the rest are archetypes and intended to be larger than life and that filling in ‘realistic’ details is likely to reduce them to line drawings.” That, like the notion that the play speaks to audiences beyond its era, is part of the definition of a classic piece of art. What do we know about Lear’s backstory, or Tartuffe’s, or Alceste’s, or Faust’s. (We know a little more about Oedipus’ or Antigone’s biographies because they are the subjects of entire myths over centuries of a culture.)

On the matter of making the play easier for an audience to follow, Sondheim laments Paulus’s lack of trust in the spectator. “I’m glad she can speak for all of us restless theatergoers,” the composer says wryly. “If she doesn’t understand Bess and feels she has to ‘excavate’ the show, she clearly thinks it’s a ruin, so why is she doing it? I’m sorry, but could the problem be her lack of understanding, not Heyward’s?” I couldn’t agree more!

As for Audra McDonald’s sense of Bess in the original play, Sondheim responds to the actress’s estimation that Bess isn’t always “full-blooded” by pointing out, “She’s always full-blooded when she’s acted full-bloodedly,” and of McDonald’s claim that the ART adaptation is bringing out the hidden love story, the playwright declares derisively: “Wow, who’d have thought there was a love story hiding in ‘Porgy and Bess’ that just needed a group of visionaries to bring it out?” Parks’s invocation of Gershwin’s spirit elicits the same reaction from Sondheim that it did from me—though more eloquently, perhaps. His dismay at the altered ending, which he suggests would necessitate replacing Porgy’s plea, “Bring me my goat!” with the cry, “Bring me my cane!” adding, “Perhaps someone will bring him a straw hat too, so he can buck-and-wing his way to New York.” (Sondheim’s so much cleverer than I am. Which may be one reason he’s a playwright and I’m not! My only thought was that composer Murray might be tempted to splice in a chorus or two of “Hand Me Down My Walkin’ Cane.”)

By labeling us sticks-in-the-mud “Gershwin purists,” which apparently Sondheim is, too, the writer notes McDonald can defuse any criticism. In defense of himself and the rest of us, Sondheim indulges in a little sarcasm:

[W]e all know what a “purist” is, don’t we? An inflexible, academic reactionary fuddy-duddy who lacks the imagination to see beyond the author’s intentions, who doesn’t recognize all “the holes and issues” that Ms. Paulus and Ms. McDonald and Suzan-Lori Parks do. Never fear, though. They confidently claim that they know how to fix this dreadfully flawed work.

Just as I stated earlier, Sondheim affirms he isn’t prejudging the production (which, of course, hadn’t opened at the time he wrote his letter), but is only condemning the “attitude” of the adapters. He praises the casting of the leads and, like me, wishes the adapters good fortune. But he makes this disclaimer:

I can hear the outraged cries now about stifling creativity and discouraging directors who want to reinterpret plays and musicals in order to bring “fresh perspectives,” as they are wont to say, but there is a difference between reinterpretation and wholesale rewriting.

Producer (and creative director at Jujamcyn Theatres) Jack Viertel admonishes that “revivals succeed best when artists take the essence of the original work, add to it subtly or stage it inventively, and make the show live anew without betraying the original.” I think that’s what Sondheim is suggesting—and it’s definitely what I’d have wanted, in the vein that Molly Smith “modernized” Oklahoma! at the Arena last fall without “wholesale rewriting” (see my report on ROT, 17 October 2011).

Sondheim’s suggestion for the new title, based on the distinction he sees between the two endeavors, is neither The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, nor The Gershwin-Heyward Porgy and Bess. “Advertise it honestly as ‘Diane Paulus’s Porgy and Bess.’ And the hell with the real one,” Sondheim insists. “Perhaps it will be wonderful,” the playwright offers. “Perhaps Ms. Paulus and company will have earned their arrogance.” My sentiments exactly!

The response to the response, however, is sort of interesting in itself. A friend who gave me a heads-up about Healy’s 15 November 2011 column in the New York Times says of the stance of the adaptation team and their producers, “They practically refer in it to Sondheim as if he were Lord Voldemort—‘he who shall not be named.’” In fact, Healy quotes Paulus as asking, “Are we not saying his name?” and producer Jeffrey Richards replies, “It can be said.” Defensive much? According to Healy, some of the most objectionable changes the team made to the original script have been dropped, among them the hopeful ending, and Paulus is adamant that it was the team’s own decision to do so, not a response to the criticisms of “Mr.-Whomever-we-are-not-talking-about.” The reversals came, the director insists, from “learning about the work” so that “we found its strongest version.” What it sounds like to me, though, is that after trying to rework the play with some preconceived ideas in their heads, born of some kind of philosophy or agenda, it turned out that the best version of the play was the one that Heyward and the Gershwins wrote in 1935 after all. It’s water seeking its own level. Turns out those old guys (who weren’t actually all that old at the time) knew a thing or two about making musical theater. And Sondheim, who knows a few tricks himself, had the ART folks’ number all along! You go, guys!

To be sure, when Ben Brantley reviewed the Cambridge début of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess in the New York Times (2 September 2011), he remarked that the bruited changes weren’t “nearly as egregious as they were rumored to be,” probably because many, especially the planned new ending that was cut in previews, were softened or dropped by the time the play opened. Brantley does emphasize that this production is Bess’s play and that Audra McDonald is the strongest actor on the stage and that nothing else in the production has her power or cohesiveness. (Paulus and Parks have acknowledged that the emphasis on Bess may have resulted from the number of women artists involved in the adaptation.) “Ms. McDonald’s performance aside,” writes Brantley, “all the new stratagems to specify and anchor the show’s themes, people and plot have instead made it oddly abstract and diffuse.” The direction, says Brantley, “lacks focus,” so “the story lacks urgency.” In other words, one of the very goals Paulus set for the adaptation failed; I wonder if this was the result of the creators’ original intent fighting against the imposed reinterpretation and ultimately defeating it. Another planned innovation, the substitution of interpolated spoken dialogue for the operatic recitative, “can often feel arbitrary,” in Brantley’s estimation. The square pegs seem to have just resisted being pounded into those round holes. Commenting on the current spate of “revisals,” revivals whose scripts and production concepts have been heavily reworked, Jack Viertel warned of “the dangers of taking a show that has always worked a certain way and saying, ‘I believe it can work my way.’”

In Variety, Frank Rizzo writes, “While entertaining, engaging and exceptionally well-acted, something is lost, too, in the scope of the score. The work's new passions—while musical-theater ‘real’—are now earth-bound, making it more ‘folk’ than ‘opera,’” sacrificing focus on the music to emphasize the “truth in the storytelling.” (One example: When Clara sings “Summertime” in the opening, she’s carrying a real baby!) The restored original ending was judged “pitch perfect” by the Arts Journal’s David Patrick Stearns, reinstated, he says, not because it’s sacrosanct or because Sondheim excoriated ART over its excision: “Put simply, the old ending works better . . . and so solid that it still works when cluttered up with some angsty new writing.” Rizzo adds that the new, peppier orchestration, while it doesn’t seriously affect the lighter numbers, diminishes the deeper ones like “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and “I Loves You, Porgy” because the old operatic way of singing them resonates more soulfully. “This sort of mistake is often made by theater directors who are new to opera,” Rizzo explains. “They think of music as theatrical information. But it’s not. It’s music, and it has powers that we don’t fully understand.” In the New Yorker, Hilton Als supports almost all the adjustments and says the performance “left me breathless.” In ART’s hometown paper, the Boston Globe, Don Aucoin assures theatergoers and us “purists” that Sondheim’s concerns were mostly unnecessary because while ART made some adjustments, “Paulus and adapters Suzan-Lori Parks and Dierdre [sic] L. Murray are largely faithful to the spirit and the structure of the original.” Overall, the reviews I saw of the 1 September 2011 Cambridge opening of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess are somewhat mixed but generally positive, with occasional reservations. Only Brantley in the New York Times is essentially negative. My sense, however, is that what the reviewers object to is the remaining alterations and the positive response, along with nearly universal praise for Audra McDonald’s work (she was especially appreciated for her combination of excellent acting and superb singing), comes from the elements of P&B that were left unchanged or reverted back to the original concepts.

The misconceived production of a new play can kill it, as almost happened with Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke after the 1948 Broadway outing, closing after a scant three months. (The play’s rep was revived when José Quintero restaged it Off-Broadway in 1952.) The account of the young dramatist whose play was smoothed out by the rep company before coming to New York made me think of some of the principles by which a dramaturg is expected to work. One is to be the playwright’s advocate. There isn’t a dramaturg listed for ART’s re-imagining of Porgy and Bess but Diane Paulus certainly served as one de facto. Where was her advocacy for Heyward and the Gershwins? The estates might have been looking over her shoulder and approving of her work, but no one, it seems, was looking out for the originators’ artistic interests. No one without a serious conflict of interests. (Literary estates are sometimes less concerned with protecting the legacies or intentions of their departed charges than in seeing their works revived. It’s how they earn money.) In fact, the participating artists seem to have treated the original creators as adversaries. Another dramaturg’s rule, lifted from the Hippocratic Oath, is: “First, do no harm.” The ART docs all operated because they could; no one looked out for the patient’s ultimate welfare. (To continue the medical analogy, these adapters also behaved like stereotypical surgeons, electing to perform surgery as the first option even when less invasive but perhaps equally effective treatment was available from the acting and directing departments.) Their goals were not to make the play a better rendering of what it was—if that were even possible or necessary—it was, for each participant, a variation of making it suitable for ART’s artistic profile, saleable to some notion of the company’s audience, or appropriate for some vision of the 21st-century theater scene. Nowhere was the work of art honored. The production team working with that young writer didn’t try to make the script the best expression of her intent; they guided her to rewrite it into the play they wanted her to write. In the same way, the P&B adapters turned Heyward and the Gershwins’ script into the Porgy and Bess they’d have written. (Claiming it’s what George Gershwin would have done is just absurd.) In the end, I fall back on the one thing Audra McDonald said with which I can agree: “[T]he opera will always exist to be performed.” Happily, whatever becomes of the ART adaptation, however well-intentioned and however successful the result, the original Gershwin-Heyward version remains, and we can always return to the well. The mustache on this “Mona Lisa” can be removed with no lasting damage.

[I should note that this column was written before the New York production of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess opened (17 December 2011 for previews; 12 January 2012 for the press). Not only have I not seen the performance, but the local reviews haven’t appeared yet. (Among the New York City press, only the New York Times covered the opening. Against the paper’s usual policy apparently, Brantley went to Cambridge because of the controversy, especially in response to Sondheim’s letter, which had played out in the pages and on the website of the Times over the year since the 5 November 2010 announcement of the “re-imagining” of P&B.)

[Readers may have noted that I avoided referring to the original
P&B as an “opera” (though I may have done so once or twice). As I said in the article, I see it as a one-off, something unique unto itself as far as its genre or taxonomic category is concerned. Let me quote the New York Times’ music critic Donal Henahan from his review of Peter Brook’s La Tragedie de Carmen at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in 1983: “‘La Tragedie de Carmen’ is a peculiar hybrid, a bird that makes noises like an opera but looks like a play and may be neither . . . .” Henahan has precisely captured my feeling about the 1935 version of Porgy and Bess. Henahan went on to suggest that Brook’s adaptation was principally “a celebration of a director's ingenuity.” I’d revise that to say that P&B was principally a celebration of a composer's, two lyricists', and a librettist’s geniuses.

[I should also note for clarity and preciseness that the other adaptations that I named above,
West Side Story and My Fair Lady, weren’t merely reinterpretations of earlier classics (Romeo and Juliet and Pygmalion), but the creation of entirely new works of art. Cabaret wasn’t merely a revision of I Am a Camera or even Berlin Stories. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific wasn’t a simple adaptation of Tales of the South Pacific. As I noted, too, Porgy and Bess was itself such an adaptation: a musicalized version of the Heywards’ play Porgy, which was in turn a stage adaptation of DuBose Heyward’s novel of that title. They were new artworks that stood on their own, without reference to their predecessors.]

09 January 2012

A Helluva Town, Part 3

[On 15 and 18 August 2011, I ran a pair of articles on a collection of oddities and peculiarities about New York City. As big as this city is, and as old, there are plenty of those, so I’ve decided to compose a third installment of “Helluva Town.” If I come up with more interesting items unique to the Big Apple (explained in Part 2), I may very well write up additional installments of “HT.” (Let that serve as a BOLO: Be On the Look Out.)]

NEW YORK TIME

What other city, state, or region has a unit of time named after it? Especially one recognized, however derisively, by nearly everyone else? Is there anyone who speaks English who doesn’t know what “in a New York minute” means? I doubt it.

(Just to be clear, we’re not talking about the junk movie starring the Olson Twins from 2004 or the 1989 rock song by Don Henley, Danny Kortchmar, and Jai Winding covered by the Eagles in 1995. The phrase also served as the title of an episode of Law & Order in 2005—as well as other films, songs, and a video game.)

For those few who don’t know the term (have you all been living under a rock?), it means a very short span of time, a millisecond, a trice, faster than a speeding bullet, et cetera. (Some people say “New York second”—but they’re probably not from here!) “Officially,” a “New York minute” is defined (reportedly by Johnny Carson) as the time between a Manhattan traffic light turning green in front of you and the driver behind you blowing his or her horn. Clear?

The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) suggests that the term wasn’t actually coined in the Big Apple. (Texas in the mid-’60s is one possible origin.) Speculation is that it’s the notion of the fast-paced life here in New York City in the mind of someone from a less-hectic spot in rural America. Maybe, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong! It just takes a Texan (or whoever) a whole minute to do what we here-abouts do in less than a second. So—waste time if you wanna. No skin off my nose! (Unless, of course, you’re in front of me when that light changes! In that case—fuggedaboudit!)


* * * *

Now, speaking of New York time-keeping: A 27-story building across 14th Street from the south end of Union Square Park is the location of perhaps the World’s Most Confusing Clock. There are lots of street clocks all over New York City, some old, some new, some lovely and ornamental, some plain and utilitarian, some analogue, and some digital, but “New York's very own time machine,” as the New York Times characterized it, is built into the façade of the luxury apartment house at 1 Union Square South which opened in 1998.

Completed in July 1999, Metronome, as the timepiece is called, was dedicated that October. Fifteen numerals endlessly count the hours, minutes, and seconds, and a few feet to their right, on a rippling wall measuring 60 feet by 100 feet, steam (“The Infinity”) periodically belches out of a five-foot, gold-rimmed hole (“The Vortex”). At the top of the circle, made of 24-carat gold-leafed bricks, is a huge hand, called “The Relic,” a bronze enlargement of one of George Washington’s hands in the equestrian statue across 14th Street in the southern plaza of Union Square. Below the steam aperture is a large piece of bedrock representing the geological history of the city. An electronic tone sounds at midnight and noon and a gold-and-black sphere spins in sync with the lunar phases. The husband-and-wife artists who created Metronome, Andrew Ginzel and Kristin Jones, say that the various elements of the work represent not only clock time, but geological and astronomical time as well.

The 15 digits of the time display, called “The Passage,” tell the time both elapsed from midnight and left till next midnight, all according to International Atomic Time; Metronome’s linked to an atomic clock for that purpose. The time is displayed in a military-like 24-hour format. For instance, in the numbers 090742000185214, the first six figures, read in pairs from the left, show that 9 hours, 7 minutes, and 42 seconds have passed since last midnight (in other words, it’s 9:07:46 a.m.), and the last six, read from the right, show that 14 hours, 52 minutes, and 18 seconds remain until the next midnight. The seventh digit from each end represents tenths of a second and the number in the middle, an unreadable flash of changing figures, is hundredths of a second. The three center numbers, the artists explain, become “a frenzy of intangible fractions of seconds, which reveal the pace of life in the city.”

During 2005, Metronome did not tell the time; it counted down the hours until the International Olympic Committee announced the 2012 Summer Olympics host city. New York City was in contention for the games, a bid Mayor Bloomberg boosted but which the city lost to London (thank goodness!).

Metronome, at $4.2 million, was one of the city's largest privately funded public art commissions in the ’90s. Ginzel and Jones, who’ve created many works of public art, call Metronome ''an ode to the impossibility of knowing Time.'' Not a few critics, both architecture writers and the public, found that a pretentious statement and have heaped opprobrium on the work. I’ve gotten used to it, but it holds little real meaning for me—and without an interpretation, I can’t remember what most of the symbolism stands for.


* * * *

A different kind of clock, which has become symbolic to the whole country in the last several years, doesn’t tell time at all: The National Debt Clock. We see an image of it whenever some politician wants to make a point in Congress about the current debt situation or when a newscast does a story on the subject. Before the necessary technology even existed, New York real estate developer Seymour Durst conceived of a National Debt Clock to call attention to the country’s soaring debt and each American family’s share of it. Durst installed the original clock, which used 306 individual light bulbs, on a Durst Organization building at the northwest corner of 6th Avenue and 42nd Street (facing Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library building) in February 1989, when the national debt was nearing $3 trillion.

In September 2000, when the prosperity of the 1990s resulted in the national debt slowly decreasing, the clock started to run backwards. The display wasn’t designed to go in reverse, however, and the clock was turned off and covered with a red, white, and blue curtain when the debt dropped to a steady $5.7 trillion. That didn’t last, and when the debt began to rise again, the clock was reactivated in July 2002, starting at $6.1 trillion. The current clock, whose high-resolution, dot-matrix numerals are designed to run backwards, replaced the original in 2004 on another Durst building at 44th Street and 6th Avenue. When the debt exceeded $10 trillion in September 2008, an additional digit was installed.

New York City’s National Debt Clock has inspired similar countdown clocks, including debt clocks in other countries as well as displays of other constantly changing figures like population growth.

THE CLOISTERS

Now, let’s go back in time—between six and nine centuries. Or just to 1938, if you prefer. In May of that year, The Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's medieval-art complex, opened to the public. This is one of the true joys of living in New York City. Even if you aren’t a particular fan of medieval art—and I’m not—the presentation of the tapestries, sculptures, and sarcophagi in this beautiful setting in Fort Tryon Park in far northern Manhattan is just awe-inspiring. At The Cloisters, the display is as much the star of the show as the 5,000 artworks themselves. The collection also includes manuscripts, stained glass, metalwork, enamels, and ivories. (Trust me: if you are a fan of the art of the middle ages, you won’t be put off by the setting. It just makes the works more outstanding.) I don’t believe anything like The Cloisters exists anywhere else in the world. The fact that a place of such calm and pastoral peace is located in busy, hectic, often frenetic Manhattan is all the more astonishing.

Built with financial support from John D. Rockefeller, the building is constructed from architectural elements of five medieval French cloistered abbeys dating from the 12th to the 15th centuries, reassembled brick by brick between 1934 and 1938 on a hill overlooking the Hudson River. The former cloisters themselves are gardens today, planted according to horticultural information obtained from medieval manuscripts and artifacts, where visitors can take a moment’s respite from wandering the chapels and halls of the abbeys examining the art pieces in environments not too different from the ones in which they’d originally have been seen. (One of the cloister gardens, which all have slightly different delicate, slim columns around their arcade, is a small café where visitors can get a snack or have tea or a soft drink.) It goes without saying (but I will anyway) that the best time to visit The Cloisters is on a really nice day in spring or fall—though it’s certainly beautiful in summer or winter as well.

The basis of the museum’s holdings is the private collection of George Grey Barnard, an American sculptor and collector of medieval art. Rockefeller purchased Barnard's collection and donated it, along with a number of his own pieces—including the famous (and spectacular) Netherlandish Unicorn tapestries, displayed in a gallery of their own—to the Met. Rockefeller also bought over 65 acres of land along the riverfront for the park and site for the new museum (which occupies four acres), and even bought several hundred acres of the Jersey Palisades and donated them to the State of New Jersey to protect the museum’s unspoiled vista across the Hudson. (Say what you will about this famous industrialist, but this was truly a wonderful gift to the residents and visitors of New York City. Easily accessible by public transportation, Fort Tryon Park is admission-free and entrance to The Cloisters is modest—suggested donation for adults: $15—gaining visitors same-day admission to the Met as well.)

Since 1987, the surrounding area of Fort Tryon Park is turned over to the Medieval Festival for one day each October. The park is transformed into a medieval market town festooned with banners and flags where performers and visitors appear in period dress. Festival-goers are treated to authentic music, dance, magic of the middle ages. Minstrels, jugglers, and jesters ply the grounds, and costumed vendors demonstrate and sell medieval crafts and food and drink. The afternoon concludes with a jousting tournament among four mounted knights. Like the park itself, entrance to the Medieval Festival is free.

EGG CREAM

Nearly everyone knows something that’s uniquely identified with New York City, whether it’s the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building, the Yankees, an expression like fuggedaboudit, or Manhattan clam chowder. One of the most enduring is the egg cream, especially associated with Brooklyn. For those who don’t know about egg creams, it’s a drink, sort of in the category of the ice cream soda or the milkshake . . . but different. An egg cream—which has neither eggs nor cream among its ingredients—is almost exclusively a fountain drink, making it harder and harder to find even in the Big Apple since soda fountains are becoming scarcer and scarcer. (A few attempts have been made to bottle egg creams, but it doesn’t really work—it has to be made fresh just before you drink it or it won’t get a head on it. You can make it at home—recipe follows—but somehow that doesn’t really work as well, either. Bottled seltzer doesn’t have the fizz that soda from a siphon has and the outcome is flat and limp.)

My grandfather was a pharmacist in New York City and when I was little, my greatest wish was to make my own fountain drink at his drug store; a real egg cream would have been my dream come true! It’s made from chocolate syrup, milk, and seltzer (that’s soda water for you deprived folks from somewhere else—also known as “two cents plain”) and probably dates from the late 19th century. I suppose you could look on it as an ice cream soda without the ice cream—if you wanted to be a killjoy.

The legend is that Brooklyn candy store owner Louis Auster invented it in 1890—but who knows. Others have laid claim to the honor as well. Even the origin of the name, egg cream, is unknown. There are many suggested sources, but none of them sound very convincing. One, for instance, is based on the German/Yiddish word echt, which means ‘real’ or ‘true’: the treat was made with echt cream, which became corrupted in English as egg cream. But since it isn’t even made with cream and no one calls it an egg milk, I don’t really buy that. The rest are even sillier.

The origin of the drink itself is less farfetched, though the stories are still undocumented. The most plausible is that it was a variation on the prototype of the milkshake, invented around 1885. Milkshakes, unlike the thick, creamy variation we know today, were originally made with cream, an egg, and flavored syrup mixed in a shaker until all foamy and then poured into a glass. Soda was added to the glass to finish the drink. To keep the cost low as prices rose, the eggs were eliminated and the cream was replaced with milk, giving birth to the egg cream. It cost about a nickel back in those days. (Unflavored seltzer sold for two cents, hence the name: “two cents plain.”) Recipes for drinks using the same name have been traced back to the late 19th century and to the years around World War I, but they were all slightly different than the egg cream we see in New York today.

The recipe for a modern egg cream is fairly simple, though it takes some practice and care to get it right. Take a large glass and pour in one part cold milk. You can froth the milk with a whisk or a frother if you have one. Whole milk works best; low-fat or skim milk will provide a wimpy egg cream—this is not a drink for the diet- or cholesterol-conscious. It’s an indulgence! Add two to three parts seltzer; a freshly opened bottle works best because the carbonation is still strong. (Club soda doesn’t yield a very good egg cream because it’s saltier than plain old seltzer. Fizzy mineral waters don’t work, either, because the bubbles are too small and weak. This ain’t an effete drink, either. Remember, it’s from Brooklyn!) If you own a soda siphon, you’re golden! Finally, squirt in up to a half inch of chocolate syrup, depending on how chocolaty you like your drink. (I understand that some people make the egg cream with vanilla syrup, but I say that’s phony. A real Brooklyn egg cream is chocolate and only chocolate.) You should stir the ingredients just a little very fast to preserve the layering, which is the mark of true Big Apple egg cream. You also don’t want to let all the fizz escape the seltzer with excessive agitating—there’s nothing worse than a flat egg cream! Finally, you’ve got to drink it right after it’s made. You can’t make an egg cream ahead of time and stash it in the fridge. It’s an impulse treat: you want it, you make it, you drink it.

GREENMARKETS

Back in ’89-’90, I had a temporary gig teaching at a state college in Oneonta, N.Y. That’s in the middle of the state, about five hours by car north of New York City. It’s in farm country—specifically dairy farm country. But do you know that I can get better, fresher, and more plentiful produce here in Gotham more easily than I could upstate? True. And the reason is: Greenmarket.

Founded in 1976, Greenmarket, run by a privately funded nonprofit organization, provides small farms the chance to sell locally grown products directly to consumers and ensures that New Yorkers can get the freshest locally grown food available. The idea started with 12 farmers at a single market at 59th Street and 2nd Avenue in Manhattan and has grown to 53 sites all over the city (all five boroughs), representing almost 250 farms and other producers like fishermen and bakers. Greenmarket is the largest such enterprise in the country. The largest market is at Union Square, right in my own neighborhood (a half a block east), and customers come from all over the area, not just the city, to shop there four days a week. (A big draw every year are the special-order fresh turkeys at Thanksgiving and Christmas.) Even several of the restaurants in this neighborhood do some of their shopping at the Greenmarket.

There are some rules. The vendors can only sell what they grow, raise, or produce on their farms or other businesses. There’s no importing, reselling, or wholesaling. You won’t, for instance, find oranges in the Greenmarket—because no one around here grows them. If it’s out of season locally, the vendor can’t send off to Florida or Mexico for it and stock his stand. When the local tomatoes and corn are done for the year, you just have to go to the supermarket and get the stuff that sits in a warehouse somewhere for God-knows-how-long—or wait till next season. But while they’re in the fields (there are some hothouse tomatoes available all year ’round, of course—but the field-grown beefsteaks only last through the summer), they’re delicious and beat the store-bought tomatoes all to hell!

What’s more, the produce in the Greenmarket is ripe when I buy it. I can get tomatoes or peaches that won’t be ready to eat until the next day, but I never have to buy any that have been picked and shipped hard as a rock. The supermarket peaches have no flavor and the tomatoes aren’t much better (I never buy them in a store), but the fresh ones in the Greenmarket are the best-tasting fruits and veggies I ever eat. There are some things I won’t buy anywhere else anymore.

There are various sellers aside from straight farm produce, like bakers (bread, rolls, pies, cookies—you name it); jelly-makers; honey sellers; dairies that sell cheeses, yogurt, and ice cream alongside the milk and cream; even wineries. The non-farm products have to be made by the sellers and the ingredients have to be predominantly local. Some non-edible products are also sold, such as flowers and plants, candles, wreaths and decorative objects made from dried plants, and fleece.

My Greenmarket has a stand that sells potatoes of so many varieties, I’d never even seen some of them (including one that’s purple inside!), and one that has a dozen kinds of peppers displayed in bins arranged from mild to scalding hot! One preserves stand, along with the usual fruit jams and jellies and the different chutneys and relishes, carries a line of vegetable jellies like garlic and rosemary. They have a hot pepper jelly that I’ve discovered makes a fantastic condiment for pork and chicken and I always have a jar of it in my fridge. There are also more exotic products available, like squid, lemongrass, or bok choy (also catnip, for feline patrons)—all of it fresh. The produce has to be fresh-picked within days, depending on the product; most is picked within 24 hours of sale. (Lettuce or corn has to be the day before the sale or so, while potatoes and onions can be dug a little earlier.)

There aren’t any real restrictions on how far away the farm or fishery can be (as long as it’s “in the New York region”), though getting the products to market while they’re still fresh limits the distance a would-be vendor can travel. I get farmers not just from Long Island and Jersey, but from as far away as Pennsylvania. (A prospective Greenmarket vendor can wait years for a spot to become available in a popular market like Union Square.) I don’t know all the specific rules for the sellers, but it all adds up to the same basic result: the stuff’s all fresh and hasn’t been sitting on a truck or in a storeroom for weeks. I get a much longer shelf-life that way than I do with produce from a supermarket. Of course, since I only have to walk a half a block to replenish my supply, I don’t have to buy so much at one time.

BEEKMAN PALACE

Many towns have a haunted house or mysterious empty property around which legends and myths have grown up. New York City’s no different—except that maybe ours are bigger and, perhaps, stranger. One such site in the Big Apple is sometimes known as the Beekman Palace at 5 Beekman Street at the corner of Nassau Street, practically right across from City Hall Park. Properly known as Temple Court, a city landmark and once one of the best-known office buildings in New York, the building has an elaborate skylight and decorative ironwork that’s long been hidden from view in a vacant, deteriorated property. The ornate 129-year-old building was designated a city landmark in February 1998.

Temple Court, designed by Silliman & Farnsworth, was built by banker Eugene Kelly, who had amassed the 19th-century equivalent of $630 million by the time he died in 1894 at the age of 88. Put up in two stages beginning in 1881, the nine-story building, known first as the Kelly Building and redesignated Temple Court in 1882, was completed in 1883 as part of a wave of construction of tall, fireproof buildings with elevators that went up in lower Manhattan at the dawn of the skyscraper. The exterior features two pyramid-roofed corner towers climbing an additional story; the sole negative building review at the time of the landmarking described these as “donkey ears.” The earliest surviving building from that period, and only the third building erected in New York City after the introduction of elevators, it was extensively expanded in 1890. 5 Beekman Street is built around a central atrium soaring up nine stories to a pyramidal skylight, surrounded on every floor by Victorian iron railings, delicate Victorian iron balustrades ornamented with flowers, wings, sunbursts, spikes, and arabesques. Now restored, the iron-and-glass skylight looks up at the tower of the 54-floor Woolworth Building, another New York City architectural landmark, built 30 years later. For decades, since probably 1940 when the building was shuttered, the central atrium was walled off from public view. “I had no idea it existed,” recalled the daughter of one past owner in 1998. “I crawled under and went back in time.”

Temple Court went through an infelicitous renovation in the 1950s, with new walls and ceilings added. Above the false ceilings were cast-iron brackets shaped like roaring dragons, their tails whipping around, their scales reminiscent of shark's teeth, and their wings holding up the ceiling beams. The walls of the staircase that ascends the atrium are covered with patterned cast-iron paneling. Flat, mid-century walls hide deep, arched mahogany door and window frames that were almost untouched by the ugly drywall covering; much of the original tile work on the floors and walls is still intact. “We started uncovering things,” recalled an architect who’d been engaged to redecorate Temple Court in 1998, “and said, ‘Wait a minute. Why would you ever redecorate? You have to undecorate!’” Blogger Nick Carr of Scouting NY, who took dozens of terrific photos of the interior in November 2010, described the preservation of “the most beautiful atrium in New York City” due to its having been closed up for so many decades, as “a mosquito in amber.” Alex Herrera, the technical director of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, proposed giving Temple Court’s owners the ''King Tut Award'' for most successful entombment.

The space has been offered for photo shoots, videos, and films. For a November 2010 issue, Harper's Bazaar did a fashion layout there featuring the model Iman and scenes for the 2010 AMC cable TV series Rubicon were shot there, turning the site into the torture chamber of an East European prison.

Currently, the property owners are looking for a buyer. There’s a hang-up over some legal matter between the two companies which control the property, but the sellers are in negotiation with a company that wants to turn Temple Court into a hotel, restoring 5 Beekman Street to its turn-of-the-century grandeur and preserving the original details discovered under the 1950s disguise. The proposed 200-room luxury hotel would be called the Beekman Palace, and many people who’ve had contact with the building since its “rediscovery” in the late ’90s are fervently hoping it will happen. Carr of Scouting NY envisions “quite possibly the most unique hotel in all of New York City.” Even if we couldn’t afford to stay there, he points out, at least New Yorkers could walk in and “admire its beauty.”

“KNICKERBOCKER” AND SLEEPY HOLLOW

Washington Irving (1783-1859), one of the first American writers (with James Fenimore Cooper) to become famous in Europe, published The History of New-York in 1809, written under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker. When I did some reading about Irving (I’ve also published some of his letters on ROT, 13, 16, 19, 22, 25, and 28 August 2010), I got curious about the name Knickerbocker. I wondered if the name used as a nickname for New Yorkers, especially those of Dutch origins, came from the name for the knee-pants or if there was a family name from which it derived, or if it meant something in Dutch. It turns out that it's entirely made up. Irving popularized Knickerbocker as a nickname for people and things New York, but he took it from a friend (and U.S. Representative from New York to the 11th Congress, 1809-11) named Herman Knickerbocker (1779-1855), who, in turn, was descended from an early Dutch settler in New Amsterdam, Harmen Jansen van Wijhe Knickerbacker (ca. 1650-ca. 1720), but Harmen Knickerbacker (a variant spelling, along with Knikkerbakker and Knickerbakker) made the name up when he arrived here. As far as I can tell, it was never a real name until then and it may not even have an etymological meaning in Dutch. (I didn't find one.)

The pants were named after the Knickerbocker family, who were known for wearing the short pants with long stockings, so that use doesn't date any further back than the early 19th century. (The German for the knee-pants we call knickerbockers or knickers is Kniebundhosen, literally 'knee-bound trousers.' I don't know what the Dutch word for them is.) Irving popularized the whole invented tradition of the New York Knickerbockers, the Dutch-descended elite of the former colony (akin to the Boston Brahmins) and perpetuated their habits and customs, such as the long-stemmed clay pipes the men smoked and the old-fashioned style of pants they wore long after the popular style had turned to trousers.

Virtually everything in New York that used or uses the name Knickerbocker, including the basketball team, owes the use to Irving; he invented the entire "tradition" out of whole cloth: it has no actual historical provenance! In fact, Irving popularized the name through a kind of hoax: he created an imaginary missing person named "Diedrich Knickerbocker," a fictional Dutch historian who’d supposedly disappeared from his hotel, in a series of newspaper ads and kept the story going until it went viral—as we'd say today. One of Irving’s notices was purportedly from the hotel manager who said that if Knickerbocker didn’t return to pay his bill, he’d publish a manuscript the historian left behind to cover the debt and when Irving published The History of New-York, it came out under the name Diedrich Knickerbocker, which eventually became one of the writer’s frequent pseudonyms.


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Sometime around 1645, in what was then the Dutch colony of New Netherland, settlers built the first European residence on the eastern bank of the Hudson River about 25 miles north of Manhattan (New Amsterdam). By 1674, when the British took the colony from the Dutch, the village that grew there was called Tarrytown. Just north of Tarrytown is a smaller village formerly known as North Tarrytown. By an overwhelming margin, the people of this Westchester County village voted on 10 December 1996 to change its name of 122 years to the more evocative appellation of Sleepy Hollow, deliberately calling to mind the area’s connection with Washington Irving’s 1820 short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.'' The famous tale of schoolmaster Ichabod Crane and his encounter with a headless horseman on a dark country lane was set in the area around Tarrytown and North Tarrytown.

As popular as the name-change was (residents voted for it 1,304 to 710), it was not universally well received. “I've been here all my life, and it's always going to be North Tarrytown to me,” said one resident. Some called the action “empty” and “pretentious,” though more people came out to vote on the issue than in some presidential elections. (Village name changes are rarer than presidential elections, after all. The previous recorded one in this area was in 1972 when East Paterson, New Jersey, became Elmwood Park. For the record—and for comparison—the present-day Saint Petersburg, Russia, was Leningrad, Soviet Union, until 1991. Before that, it was Petrograd, Soviet Union, until 1924, and before that, Saint Petersburg, Russia, again until 1914. Tsar Peter the Great founded the city in 1703, so it’s actually younger than Tarrytown, if not Sleepy Hollow.)

Aside from its association with Irving’s story (published, as it happens, under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker), Sleepy Hollow is the location of Philipsburg Manor House, a historic house, water mill, and trading site, and Kykuit, a Rockefeller family estate. It’s also where British Major John André, who was carrying the plans of West Point provided by Benedict Arnold, was captured during the Revolutionary War. In addition to Washington Irving, such prominent figures as Andrew Carnegie, Walter P. Chrysler, Brooke Astor, and Elizabeth Arden are buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

TATTOOS AND PINBALLS

New York City’s a navy town, lots of sailors. It’s also a counterculture center, of just about every type and leaning. So did you know that tattoos were illegal here for over 30 years until they were relegalized in 1997?

American style tattooing was born in Chatham Square in lower Manhattan. In 1875, Bostonian Samuel O'Reilly set up shop in New York City, a seaport and entertainment center attracting working-class people with money. His shop was so successful, he took on an apprentice, Charlie Wagner, and after O'Reilly's death in 1908, Charlie Wagner opened a tattoo supply business with a man named Lew Alberts who’d trained as a wallpaper designer. Alberts transferred his skills to the design of tattoos and is credited with redesigning much of early tattoo art.

In the 1920s, with prohibition and then the depression in the ’30s, Chatham Square lost its appeal and tattooing moved out to Coney Island and later Times Square, which had started to become sleazy and dangerous. Then, in 1961 there was an outbreak of hepatitis and tattooing was seen as a prime cause. Though most tattoo shops had sterilization equipment, few used them. Newspapers reported stories of blood poisoning, hepatitis, and other diseases and the public saw tattoo parlors as disreputable. At first, the city health department gave the tattooists the opportunity to form an association and regulate their own practices, but the skin artists were too independent-minded to organize themselves. A health code regulation went into effect in 1961 and the tattoo shops in Times Square and Coney Island were shut down. Tattoos became illegal and for a time it was difficult to get one in New York. Body art was only available on the second floors of buildings on Canal Street, in basements, apartments, and back rooms. The better shops moved to Philadelphia and New Jersey where it was still legal.

In the late 1960s, the attitude towards tattooing changed. Much of the credit goes to Lyle Tuttle, a handsome, charming, and media-savvy body artist who tattooed celebrities, particularly women like Janis Joplin, Cher, and the sex worker Annie Sprinkle. Magazines and TV interviewed Tuttle about this ancient art form and in the ’70s he appeared on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. By the 1980s, tattooing, no longer seen as part of the subculture, had become popular again. Body art was becoming mainstream and sexy; hardly a band didn’t have tattoos. Underground tattooists began advertising openly, albeit in alternative publications. The New York Tattoo Society was formed in 1985 and eventually became the catalyst for legalization; the law prohibiting tattoo parlors was repealed in February 1997. Today, tattooing has made such a comeback in New York City that in 1998, the first Annual New York City Tattoo Convention convened; its 15th session is scheduled for May 2012.


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It’s pretty easy to see why New York City and its health department would become concerned over tattooing, however misguided it seems from our perspective today. But what about the lowly pinball machine? In 1939, pinball games, too, were banned in the Big Apple. What could the seemingly innocent pastime of so many teenaged boys, found in malt shops and soda fountains all over the country, possibly have done to cause that drastic action?

Pinball was banned from just before world War II to the mid-1970s in most of America's big cities, including Chicago, where the game was born and where virtually all of its manufacturers have historically been located; Los Angeles; and New York. The stated reason for the bans: Pinball was a game of chance, not skill, and so it was a form of gambling. To be fair, pinball really did involve a lot less skill in the early years of the game since the flipper wasn't invented until 1947, five years after most of the bans were imposed. Many lawmakers also believed pinball, on top of being a waste of time and money for impressionable youth, was a mob-run racket. (The machines robbed the "pockets of schoolchildren in the form of nickels and dimes given them as lunch money," New York Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia wrote in a court affidavit.)

In New York, the pinball ban was executed in a particularly dramatic fashion. Just weeks after Pearl Harbor was attacked, for instance, Mayor La Guardia issued an order to the city's police force making the round-up of pinball machines and the arrest of their owners their first priority. La Guardia led Prohibition-style raids in which thousands of machines were seized and dramatically smashed with sledgehammers by the mayor and police commissioner. The machines were then dumped into the city's rivers. The games weren’t relegalized in New York City until 1976.

The ban ended when Roger Sharpe, a witness for the Amusement and Music Operators Association, testified before a committee of the New York City Council in April 1976 that pinball games were no longer games of chance but had become games of skill. He played a game set up in the chamber, and, reminiscent of Babe Ruth's home run in the 1932 World Series, announced what he was going to shoot for and then did exactly what he’d said. Astonished committee members reportedly then voted to remove the ban. (Sharpe reportedly acknowledged later that his committee room shot had been sheer luck.)

The video-game boom in the 1980s put an end to the heyday of pinball, but that bubble didn’t last. Many old-line manufacturers either shifted to the new games or went out of business, but the challenge also spurred many designers and manufacturers to come up with new ideas for the pinball using the latest technology. The new models didn’t attract back the numbers of players the old pinball games had drawn, but they held onto a core of fans and when the coin-operated video-game phenomenon collapsed in the 1990s, the pinball was poised to come back. By 1997, however, the second boom in pinball interest dried up, too, supplanted largely by computer games which could be played at home, even by young teens and preteens who couldn’t go into arcades legally. Today, fewer companies are making pinballs, even the latest digital and computer-driven models, but once again, the games are holding on to die-hard fans, even though they may no longer look like the old pinball machines my generation grew up with, the kind immortalized in The Who’s Tommy. Players of the silver ball may no longer be able to feel all the bumpers, hear the buzzers and bells, or see the lights a-flashin’, but somewhere, someone will always dream of being “The Bally table king.”