28 July 2015

William Zinsser on Writing: Harnessing the World We Live In

William Zinsser, the esteemed writing teacher, died in Manhattan on 12 May.  I never met Zinsser, but he nevertheless had a profound influence on me and my life.  I knew him only through his book On Writing Well (first published in 1976 and now in its seventh edition), which was an assigned text for one of my graduate classes at NYU back in the mid-1980s, and other pieces on writing that he published.  (I later bought Writing with a Word Processor when I got my first home computer, but the 1983 publication soon was outdated by the march of computer and word-processor technology.)  In a blog post called simply “Writing” (9 April 2010), I acknowledged that when I started to pay attention to my writing because of the emphasis my department put on it in grad school, “I began to read ‘words on words’—writers who wrote about writing: William Zinsser, Peter Elbow, and William Safire—who wrote not so much about writing as language—and the old standbys Fowler and Strunk and White.”  That brief statement belies the importance Zinsser’s principal work had on my own writing and the subsequent course of my life.

Zinsser was born in New York City on 7 October 1922 and grew up on Long Island.  He began his writing career at the New York Herald Tribune in 1946 as a feature writer, drama editor, film critic, and editorial writer.  He left the Trib in 1959 and spent the next 11 years as a freelance author, writing for magazines such as Look, Life, and the Saturday Evening Post.  Zinsser left journalism in 1970, however, to teach at Yale University, where his course, Nonfiction Workshop, was immensely popular.  (On Writing Well, which at Zinsser’s death had sold over 1½ million copies, grew out of that class.)  In 1979, Zinsser left Yale to become general editor at Book-of-the-Month Club but returned to academia in 1987 to teach writing at the New School for Social Research (now officially known simply as The New School), where his course was called People and Places, and the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.  Despite his unquestionable success as an editor and a publishing author—he’s also written 19 books on many topics varying from jazz (Willie and Dwike: An American Profile, 1984; later retitled Mitchell & Ruff: An American Profile in Jazz) to baseball (Spring Training, 1992)—the job he said he treasured most was that of teacher.  Zinsser explained that he “wanted . . . to begin to give back some of the things I had learned” from his years in the business.  He called teaching his “ministry.”

Zinsser may have been one of the first people in the world of words to say outright that academic writing was terrible and that our colleges and universities were training their students to be bad writers.  He said that “much of what academics write and read is fuzzy and verbose.”  In Writing with a Word Processor, the writing teacher warned that “very few people realize how badly they write and how badly this hurts them and their career and their company.  People are judged on the basis of who they appear to be in their writing, and if what they write is pompous or fuzzy or disorganized they will be perceived as all those things.  Bad writing makes bright people look dumb.”

Zinsser’s first fundamental good-writing principle was clarity.  “If it isn’t clear, you may as well not write it,” he declared.  “You may as well stay in bed.”  His second principle was simplicity: “There’s so much verbosity in the air that people assume that’s the way to talk, but it’s not.  Simple is good.”  The third good-writing principle was brevity or economy: “Saying things as briefly as possible with the fewest extra adjectives and words required” in the writing guru’s definition.  “Clutter,” the writer-editor instructed, “is the disease of American writing,” so he admonished writers to eschew pompous words and wordy phrases like at this point in time, quotidian, and venue instead of common, simple ones like now, daily, and place. 

His fourth fundamental principle of good writing was what he called “humanity—underlying all the others.”  Zinsser explained: “If you’re not coming across as who you are (writing is talking to someone else on paper), I think you almost might as well not write, at least if you’re writing for the general public”—as opposed to, say, academics who write for other academics.  In their cases, and by implication, anyone who writes solely for others in the same field as they are, “who am I to say that they couldn’t write in the murkiest possible way,” granted Zinsser, “but they shouldn’t inflict it on the rest of us, nor should they think it’s good writing.”  Or, I imagine he’d have added, pass it along to others (like students, for instance) as such.  (When I was doing some extensive research on some writers, I tried to read an essay called “The Crisis of Narrative in the Postnarratological Era: Paul Goodman’s The Empire City as (Post)Modern Intervention,” which was so thickly written that even once I got past that title—a classic of academese, in my opinion—I got very little out of it that was comprehensible.  I also bought a book called Toward a Theater of the Oppressed: The Dramaturgy of John Arden—I believe it was a published dissertation—that was so impenetrable that I returned it to the publisher.)

These are the tenets of the religion of writing that I learned from On Writing Well, my graduate class in Resources and Methods for the Study of Performance (1983-84), and the urgings of my other professors at NYU (who disparaged the habitual academic writing in terms stronger even than Zinsser criticized it).  It’s the kind of writing I try to produce myself (readers of Rick On Theater may notice that I haven’t entirely mastered all of the journalist-teacher’s principles all the time yet) and what I’ve tried to teach to my writing students, first in NYU’s Expository Writing Program, in English (and, believe it or not, theater) courses I’ve taught since, and to students I’ve tutored and coached.  (I used to make little signs on my computer to serve as reminders for my classes: for Principle 1 – Clarity: “What you talkin’ ’bout, writer?” borrowed from Different Strokes, the ‘70s/’80s sitcom; Principle 2 – Simplicity: “KISS – Keep It Simple, Students,” adapted from an army slogan; Principle 3 – Brevity: “You may identify me by the nomenclature of Ishmael,” the title of an article about academese and jargon; Principle 4 – Humanity: “I don’t think there’s anybody back there,” a line from a popular 1980s TV commercial for Wendy’s fast-food restaurant.) 

When he started at Yale in 1970, Zinsser found a burning need for his expertise.  Nonfiction Workshop was intended for 20 students but 175 signed up for it, prompting the Yale English department to wonder if perhaps the school hadn’t been teaching writing at all.  “There was nothing else like it at Yale in those days,” said one-time student Mark Singer, later a staff writer at the New Yorker.  Zinsser felt that his course was so necessary because that generation of students had come from “the very permissive let-it-all-hang-out 60s and hadn’t really been taught to write in high school.”  I found that when I first taught writing and I can only attest that it’s what had happened to me (high school class of 1965; college, 1969).  In that same post on “Writing” I mentioned earlier, I observed:

I don’t remember ever having been taught anything about writing when I was in school.  We learned grammar in elementary and middle school in those days, of course, but composition courses weren’t part of the curriculum.  In high school and college lit classes we studied writers, but not writing

In that same article, I noted that I was influenced by writers I was reading and admired when I first set about training myself to write better.  Zinsser insisted on several occasions, “We all need models . . . .  Writing is learned by imitation.”  Even before I heard of William Zinsser—On Writing Well was barely released at this time—I was emulating him.  “I learned to write,” he admitted, “mainly by reading writers who were doing the kind writing I wanted to do and by trying to figure out how they did it.”  That’s precisely what I was doing.  Zinsser mentioned writers like Ring Lardner, S. J. Perelman, H. L. Mencken, and even Woody Allen (about whom the journalist wrote “Woody Allen: Comic on the Way Up” for the Saturday Evening Post in 1963); my paradigms back then—ca. 1976—were Russell Baker, Anna Quindlen, E. B. White, and James Thurber.  (Notice how many of these writers on both our lists were humorists.  I’m just sayin’.)   In the end, as Zinsser explained, I transmuted my models’ writing styles into my own, having absorbed from them what was useful.  The writer-teacher observed that “we eventually move beyond our models; we take what we need and then we shed those skins and become who we are supposed to become.”

In “Writing,” I described my own earlier writing style, the one I was trying to shed, as “pedantic,” my version of what Zinsser derided as “florid” academic writing, “a ‘literary’ style” of writing that students think is what English teachers want “and that they assume is ‘good English.’”  (“Don’t assume that bad English can still be good journalism,” admonished the writing guru.  “It can’t.”)  I fell victim to what I called The William F. Buckley Syndrome—deliberately using a $50 (usually Latinate) word such as utilize when a $5 (Anglo-Saxon) one like use was available.  “I think there was a hunger in that generation,” suggested Zinsser; he heard his students imploring, “Please help me to harness the world I live in.”  (I’ve learned from my few years of writing that putting words on paper or a computer screen can be a way to sort out what I think about something—a phenomenon I discussed in another ROT post, “Why Write,” 4 March 2013.  This rationale for writing generated another of my little signs, a paraphrase of a line comedienne Gracie Allen used to use in her vaudeville and TV performances: “How do I know what I think until I see what I write?”) 

An important thing to understand about Zinsser’s teaching is that it wasn’t intended just for incipient professional writers.  Some of his students did become pros, among them Mark Singer and Jane Mayer of the New Yorker, The Atlantic’s Corby Kummer, and Christopher Buckley, the political satirist (Thank You for Smoking, 1994).  "The rest of the citizens are in some other line of work, and vast numbers of them write something during the day that gets foisted on other people,” wrote the author of Writing with a Word Processor.   His instruction and advice was really intended for the student—in high school, college, or grad school—who writes essays and term papers, the office worker or executive who writes memos and business letters, the teacher who writes student evaluations and assignment sheets, the lawyer who writes letters and briefs and the judge who writes opinions, and everyone who writes letters and e-mails.  Among his students and correspondents who weren’t famous writers were a family doctor in Quebec, a consumer advocate in Pennsylvania, and the night manager of an Orlando, Florida, resort campground.  In 2012, when glaucoma forced his retirement from writing, he announced that he’d offer “help with writing problems and stalled editorial projects and memoirs and family history” to anyone who needed it.  In his invitation, he added: “I’m eager to hear from you.  No project too weird.”

Good writing, for Zinsser, was a product of an orderly mind.  His argument was: “Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.  It’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English.”  (His 1988 book, Writing to Learn, Harper & Row, was originally subtitled How to Write – and Think – Clearly about Any Subject at All.  The second part of the book covers writing for different fields.)  I’ve already admitted that I use writing to help me sort out ideas and thoughts, even feelings; and though often those writings go into the desk drawer (or, nowadays, remain on my hard drive), occasionally they turn up on my blog (see my posts “On Reviewing,” 22 March 2009; “Sobaka: A Memoir,” 31 July 2009; and “Dad,” 20 June 2010, all of which were originally private ruminations I later published).  “Writing,” Zinsser determined, “organizes and clarifies our thoughts.  Writing is how we think our way into a subject and make it our own.”

Zinsser, in fact, declared that even when the work remains unpublished, “writing is a tremendous search mechanism.  The physical act of writing enables us to find out what we know and what we still would like to find out.”  In many of my play reports both on ROT and before I launched the blog, for example, I used the writing as a way to figure out exactly how I felt about a performance and why I felt that way, starting only with an unarticulated impression.  I was thinking on paper—an expression Zinsser used in Writing to Learn, his book on “writing across the curriculum.”  The writer-teacher believed “that an act of writing is an act of thinking—an organic compound, as the chemists would say.”  (People who keep journals, especially writers, often use them for this very purpose, along with recording impressions, thoughts, ideas, and events for potential later use.  I often find that I do this with e-mails I send to a friend before I write something more formal.)  In his 1988 book, Zinsser wrote that

we write to find out what we know and what we want to say.  I thought of how often as a writer I had made clear to myself some subject I had previously known nothing about by just putting one sentence after another—by reasoning my way in sequential steps to its meaning.  I thought of how often the act of writing even the simplest document—a letter, for instance—had clarified my half-formed ideas.  Writing and thinking and learning were the same process.

In Zinsser’s view, good writing and clear thinking are boons in any subject or field, from the humanities to the arts to the social sciences to mathematics and the hard sciences.  The writing teacher liked the idea of “Writing across the curriculum” because it “establishes . . . that writing is a form of thinking, whatever the subject.”  Zinsser found,

Whoever the writer and whatever the subject . . . the common thread is a sense of high enjoyment, zest and wonder.  Perhaps, both in learning to write and in writing to learn, they are the only ingredients that really matter.

On Writing Well has had such an impact on my own writing—and to a large extent impelled me to a life on paper and computer screen—because, aside from being a terrific guide, it came along for me at just the moment I was obliged to pay close attention to what and how I wrote.  I started at NYU’s Department of Performance Studies in the fall of 1983 and a required class was Resources and Methods, a course taught then by Kate Davy (now provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Michigan-Dearborn) which essentially covered just what the title indicates; it was partly also a writing class for grad students in the department.  One of the texts was On Writing Well, which I have characterized as the equivalent for writers of Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting: fundamental, practical, commonsensical, and excellent.  

The Department of Performance Studies insisted on “publishable-quality” writing for all work in its classes.  The fourth note I have from the first day of Resources is: “Consider all writing as for publication.”  The underlining was in my original class notes, indicating the emphasis Davy put on the statement.  All of my professors made this admonition at the start of their courses, and I managed to get several class papers published in various journals, including my very first, “The Group Theatre’s Johnny Johnson,” written for Michael Kirby’s 20th-Century Mise-en-Scene course in May 1984 and published in the Winter 1984 issue of The Drama Review (of which Kirby, who had solicited me to write for the journal, was then editor).  The requirement for our Qualifying Exams was that the three 10-page essays we turned in had to be of publishable quality, too; I got two of the three I wrote in December 1985 published later: “Dramaturgy: The Conscience of the Theatre,” TheatreInsight  Spring 1989, and “Konstantin Stanislavsky and Michael Chekhov: Realism and Un-Realism,” Players’ Journal 2008.  (My essay “The Washington Square Players: Art for Art’s Sake,” written for Brooks McNamara’s American Performance class in May 1984, was awarded the first prize in the National Amy & Eric Burger Theatre Essay Competition, administered by the University of Wyoming, in May 2004 and was published in Theatre History Studies in 2005.)  The department’s writing standards, based largely on Zinsser’s precepts, became very important to me, as you can guess.

According to my class notes for Resources, Davy’s criteria for publishable writing were that it:

·   has momentum to propel the reader along – not a “string-of-pearls”
·   should have a theme
·   should make a point (has focus)
·   should drive toward a conclusion
·   needs a discernable beginning, middle, and end (by the time it’s finished)
·   should lift the reader up, carry her/him along, and set her/him down with a satisfying “clunk”
·   makes the reader feel she/he has “been somewhere” by the time it’s finished
·   should set out to prove something.

These characteristics are all part of Zinsser’s basic outline for good non-fiction writing as laid out (or implied) in On Writing Well and his other books.  In fact, when I taught in the undergrad Expository Writing Program at NYU, which I did for two years, the mandated curriculum was clearly derived, whether intentionally or not, from Zinsser’s principles.  So were my own adjustments, which I made continually (much as Zinsser said he did) as I learned more about the craft—and the teaching of the craft—on its practical level.  In other words, I couldn’t have done what I did or taught what I taught had it not been for my introduction to On Writing Well in my first semester at NYU.  (Like Respect for Acting, Zinsser’s guide showed me that some of what I’d been doing instinctively turned out to be the correct impulses.) 

Though he called writing his “calling,” Zinsser insisted that it isn’t an art, but a craft—“an honorable craft.”  (I maintain that, like acting, it’s both an art and a craft, but I’m not prepared to argue with Zinsser here.)  An art is something you’re born good at, a talent or a gift.  You can’t learn it—or teach it.  But the principles of a craft (including the craft aspects of writing and acting)—can they be taught?    “Maybe not,” said Zinsser.  “But most of them can be learned.”  When you practice an art, you wait for the muse to strike, the inspiration to hit, then you get to work; if the muse doesn’t appear, you don’t work or you just go through the motions.  But if you practice a craft, in Zinsser’s view, you go to work regularly, the same way that a salesman goes to his store, a business executive goes to her office, or a teacher goes to his classroom.  Zinsser even kept an office about a mile from his home, explaining, “I come into my office.  I do my work.”  He thought that “a writer is someone who has to work every day with his tools—like the plumber, like the air-conditioning repairman.  The tools are words.”  Zinsser, advising writers to “establish a daily schedule and stick to it,” even essentially punched a clock, keeping regular hours: “I have never worked on a weekend.  I’ve never worked at night.  I think you do what can do within the time of a normal working day, and go home. . . .  I think of it as a job . . . .”  Zinsser acknowledged, however, that “writing wasn’t easy and it wasn’t fun.  It was hard and lonely, and the words seldom just flowed.”  He once estimated that in an hour of working, he’d “write maybe two sentences.”

On top of that, even as he kept regular working hours in his office, Zinsser said, “I think a writer’s always working.  You’re always thinking when you’re walking or whatever.”  Writers, whom he called “solitary drudges,” are “always going to be vulnerable and tense,” he warned.  He advised, though, “You have to keep yourself cheered up. . . .  You have to find ways to keep yourself cranked up and keep yourself going,” even on days when the tools don’t work as well as on other days.  (One of my acting teachers gave this same advice to us: find something that makes you want to do this role.)  But Zinsser also asserted that he wasn’t “trying to have a career.  I’m trying to have an interesting life.”  For him, writing was a way to expose himself to the world and the people around him, his application of those students’ plea “to harness the world I live in.”  For his book American Places (HarperCollins, 1992), a survey of famous sightseeing destinations, the author spoke not to the visitors, whose responses he thought he could predict, but to the “people who work there”; he interviewed “the curators of all these places, the custodians, the park service rangers, the daughters of the Alamo, the ladies of Mt. Vernon” because their stories would be interesting to him.  He wrote about subjects in which he himself was interested—baseball, jazz, pop music—or was curious about, like the historic sites. 

Of course, Zinsser acknowledged that “there isn’t any ‘right’ way to do such intensely personal work”; it all depends on the individual writer and the reasons she or he has for writing.  There are all kinds of writers, he recognized, and each has to find the atmosphere that’s productive for him or her to work—days, nights, in silence, with music, by hand, on a word processor, in long bursts, laboring over each paragraph and each phrase, and so on.  There are lots of people “with a compulsion to put some part of themselves on paper,” the writing teacher observed, and, in a statement that is nearly identical to one about acting made in class by my first theater teacher, declared, “any method that helps somebody to say what he wants to say is the right method for him.” 

The important result, Zinsser insisted, is that the persona of the writer be as natural and warmly human on paper as the person doing the writing.  “For ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not his subject, but who he is,” admonished Zinsser.  He explained:

This is the personal transaction that is at the heart of good nonfiction writing.  Out of it come the two most important qualities that this book will go in search of: humanity and warmth.  Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it’s not a question of gimmicks to “personalize” the author.  It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest strength and the least clutter.

It took him a while to learn the lesson, but eventually, “whatever I write about, I make myself available,” asserted Zinsser.  “No hiding.”  He’s talking about his author’s voice.  A writer’s persona is her or his personality as the reader perceives it; it’s how the writer presents her- or himself, the human being who’s talking.  It is, simply, the author’s presence in the writing, and it can have a profound effect on how the piece of writing is received.  “Good writers,” admonished the writing guru, “are always visible just behind  their words.”  Now, Zinsser presents this concept as essentially immutable: it’s “organic to the person doing the writing, as much a part of him as his hair, or, if he’s bald, his lack of it.”  You are who you are; your only choice is how you reveal yourself in your writing and how much of yourself you allow to be revealed:

Adding style is like adding a toupee.  At first glance the formerly bald man looks young and even handsome.  But at second glance . . . he doesn’t look quite right.  The problem is not that he doesn’t look well groomed; he does . . . .  The point is that he doesn’t look like himself.

He’s right, of course, that revealing the humanity behind the words is an important element in good writing (remember, “I don’t think there’s anybody back there”?).  Think, for instance, of a magnificent argument mounted by a politician, say, in support if of a policy she proposed.  If the pol gives you a positive vibe so that you trust her and like her, you’ll be more inclined to agree with her proposal, or at least to listen to it with an open mind.  But if you don’t like the proponent, if her persona turns you off, then no amount of arguing and persuasion is likely to bring you over to her side of the issue.  That’s exactly how persona works in a piece of writing.  “Sell yourself,” instructed Zinsser, “and your subject will exert its own appeal.”

I don’t think Zinsser’s right, though, to imply that an author’s presence in the writing is always the same and that all writers must do is let their actual personalities shine through the work.  What is someone’s “actual personality”?  We’re all different depending on whom we’re with, what we’re doing, and when and why.  I’m a different man as a driver when a highway patrolman is giving me a ticket, as a teacher in front of my class, as a student in someone else’s class, as an actor at a rehearsal, as a director at a rehearsal, when I was an army officer before troops of whom I was in command, as a soldier before my own commander.  As an actor, I’ve drawn on all of those persona and more—as I have in life as well.  When we write, we can allow one or another of those selves to come to the fore and be our authorial voice—and it’s not gimmickry or subterfuge; it’s not even really acting.  We’re just letting one or another of the personae within us be our voice for one piece of writing or another. 

Before we can do that, of course, we have to know the selves we are and how they work—what the avatars’ feelings are, their prejudices, and how they’re expressed differently than in our most common, everyday persona.  Now, I’m in no way talking about some form of MPD—but these selves are real and they take over when the need arises.  Well, if we learn the variations in our innate selves, we can select the most effective self for each piece of writing we compose, using carefully chosen diction, point of view, and tone.  Yes, there needs to be somebody back there behind the words, but which somebody should be a matter of choice and effort. 

As I said, I believe that writing is both an art and a craft.  Some people are born with a knack for using words—Zinsser himself was clearly one of them—to make even unfamiliar topics interesting to a reader with clarity and simplicity.  As with any talent, no one can teach you to be good at an art—it’s a gift.  But just like acting (which I used to teach also), the artist can learn how to make that talent work for him or her—how to manage the gift, to channel it, to find the skills that make it a servant of the artist and not a master.  Just as actors learn technique, painters learn brushwork and color theory, singers learn vocal technique and musical genres, writers can learn ways that put the author in charge of the process and not inspiration and accident.  That’s what Zinsser championed, taught, and wrote about.  Left to their own devices, most people write in the thick, impenetrable prose of the academic or the fuzzy, imprecise language of the dilettante. 

“Anyone who thinks clearly should be able to write clearly—about any subject at all,” declared the writer-teacher, observing, “I think the urge to put down what we think is an extremely strong human urge . . . .  Everyone has the right to try.”  He added, however, “that a lot of people think writing is easier than it is.”  He asserted that “there are ways of learning to write more interestingly,” and that’s what the bulk of William Zinsser’s life was about.  I myself may not have mastered that yet, but, because of Zinsser and On Writing Well, it’s what I work at.  I’ve compared On Writing Well to Hagen’s Respect for Acting, and like my copies of both that book and Harold Clurman’s On Directing, which are full of marginal notes and highlighting, On Writing Well should be reread periodically.  My own copies of Respect for Acting and On Directing are heavily annotated and falling apart from use; any writer’s copy of On Writing Well should end up in the same condition.  

23 July 2015

Dispatches from Spain 9

by Rich Gilbert

[My friend Rich Gilbert has sent an e-mail from Pamplona, where he and Sallie went after leaving Madrid.  (Yes, he ran with the bulls.)  They’ll be traveling, first in Spain and then farther afield, for six months before returning to the States.  Check back for Dispatches 1-8 (30 November, 10 December, and 20 December 2014, and 14 January, 8 March, and 20 April 2015) to catch up with the story.  They’ll be going to Italy next and, in the meantime, he reports on some interesting and potentially significant developments in Spanish politics and some perhaps less portentous ones in football/soccer, too.  As usual, Rich’s account of his and Sallie’s travels make us feel as if we’re sharing the adventure in Spanish culture and lifestyle.  I recommend that you all also follow Sallie’s blog, Rambling Solo, at http://ramblingsolo.blogspot.com.es.  Rich promises that his next dispatch, from Rome, will arrive soon.]

Leaving Spain‏

Pamplona – July 14, 2015

Dear Friends and Family

Pamplona / San Sebastian

I know I am jumping ahead, but for those of you who have known  me long, yes,  we are in Pamplona.  This is the last day and the closing ceremony, “Pobre de mi” [“Poor me”] is both fun and touching. I ran with the bulls safely on the 7th of July, my birthday, and again on the 13th, but not on the other days. Other than my actual birthday, I often decide each morning, depending on the night before and my gut feeling. Our friend Charlie has been seeing we get fed occasionally in some good restaurants, so Sallie is better with the Fiesta.  Nonetheless, this time, Sallie and [I] got away to San Sebastian for a few days in the middle of the Fiesta, as well as a day trip up through the Roncevailles pass (The Song of Roland) to France for lunch.  San Sebatian is  a really lovely city with some really great tapas, and I am not talking about olives! So much different than when I almost got trapped there during the riots in 1978.  Much better this way. 

One story you may enjoy concerns the location of our hotel in San Sebastian.  It was in the city, but really a bus ride, albeit short, cheap and frequent, away from the places we wanted to see.  There was really only one restaurant within blocks.  We walked up and saw the their tasting menu was 200 Euros [about $220]! No way!  As we walked back, I said “who do they think they are – a Michelin three star restaurant?”  I looked them up on-line and – you guessed it – they really were a Michelin three star restaurant! Turns out the owner is a legend in the Basque Country. Would like to try it someday but on a fixed trip when I know how much the trip will cost and how much we have to splurge.  This is not that trip.

Delays In Writing

I suppose many of you are wondering what has happened to Sallie and me.  It has been well over a month since we left our apartment in Madrid.  I meant to write an email about leaving, but the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit had other ideas.  Ten days before we were to leave Madrid, I received an order to file a supplemental brief in one of the cases which I argued when I flew home in January. It is a rare request, and often means that the Court is really struggling with an issue.  However, they wanted it filed by the day we were to fly to Italy.  I have a colleague, Kristen Hughes, who is second chair, so I spent a lot of the time before leaving Madrid drafting the brief and she was able to put [it] into final [shape] and get it filed on time.

Since then we have been traveling.  Between traveling to different places, sightseeing, and sometimes problems with internet, it has been hard to find the time to write what is becoming a longer and longer story.

Leaving Madrid

Leaving Madrid was difficult for us on several levels. Logistically, we had to decide what to send home, what to store at the apartment for later trips, and what we were going to take with us. We had other errands to accomplish as well as planning our trip. (Not to mention writing my brief for the Court of Appeals.) But it was also difficult on an emotional level. We had developed some budding friendships and also good relationships with some of the local merchants, bartenders and restaurant owners. Before leaving I tried to take photos of most of them.  All were gracious about it and most said they would miss us, and probably meant it. There were many parts of Madrid and its surroundings that we never got to visit. I think Sallie and I both felt we could have stayed longer. We would be off traveling without a home to come back to, although our landlady / friend agreed to let us store some things with her. So on the morning of Saturday, June 23, we left Madrid, by train for Malaga.


We spent about 10 days visiting parts of Andalucia, the southern province in Spain, we [had] not visited before.  We had been to Sevilla, Cordoba and Grenada on several occasions, so we headed for Malaga, a relatively large city on the coast.  We rented a car there, which was good because the “airbnb” apartment we stayed in was pretty far outside of town and difficult to get to without a car.  It was in a lovely house on a hillside in an exclusive neighborhood and we had a lovely view of the Mediterranean. Good place to relax, but driving downtown was sometimes a challenge. We got to see Roman ruins, the Alcazaba, an old Moorish palace not as well maintained as the Alhambra in Grenada, and the home where Picasso was born and lived in his youth. We ate seafood on the beach but did not go swimming.


After three days we headed to Gibraltar. We had lunch on the beach in Marbella, a picturesque beach town down the coast. We stayed the night in a hotel in Linea de la Concepcion, the small Spanish city on the other side of the border with Gibraltar. Sallie had booked a bird watching tour of the “Rock.” We did not see many birds other than gulls, despite our guide’s efforts, but it was fascinating anyway. About half the trip was spent hiking on top of the rock, with spectacular views, and plenty of military gun emplacements, most abandoned. (Parts of the top were still being used by the British military, so we could not go there anyway.) Of course, we saw the famous monkeys that are allowed to range freely on the Rock, although they are fed regularly to keep them from coming down into the town. The rest of the time was basically spent driving around the peninsula. Gibraltar’s population is that of a small city and most of them are crammed into a relatively small  stretch of land, much of it reclaimed from the sea. It was odd to hear English spoken and to have to pay in pounds.

Make no mistake, Gibraltar is still a significant source of political controversy. Spain still wants it back – badly. Our guide, who was born and raised in Gibraltar, told us that the locals have no desire to return to Spanish rule.  (The Spanish position is undermined somewhat by the fact that Spain has two such enclaves on the coast of Africa in what would be Morocco, which they plan to hang onto.) Caught in the middle are the literally thousands of Spaniards who cross over from Linea de la Concepcion every day to work in Gibraltar. (We had parked our car at the border and walked over, so we knew what a stream it was.) My guess is, and it is only a guess, that those Spaniards would prefer Gibraltar become Spanish – as long as the same level of economic activity and opportunity existed.


Upon leaving Gibraltar, we drove to Cadiz. We stopped outside Tarifa, the southernmost Spanish city on the mainland, at a stunning viewing point where we could see directly to Africa and see the huge boats sailing through the straits of Gibraltar.  I would like to described the cultural and historical highlights of Cadiz, the port city from which Columbus set out on his first voyage to the Americas. The truth is, however, that we had a hotel on the beach and so we decided to goof off for a day and a half.


After leaving Cadiz, we set out to travel to Ronda, the most famous of the “white hill towns” in Andalucia.  We drove through several other towns on the way.  These are all towns located on tops and sides of hills in the mountains, probably for protection originally.  Whether by regulation or by custom, the buildings are almost always painted white. They present striking images when viewed from afar or from the other side of the valley.  Driving in them can be hair-raising because, being towns from a different century, the streets are narrow, go up and down at quite a slope and are often one way with no clear directions. We simply gave up in Arcos de Frontera, perhaps the second largest of [the] hill towns, tried to get out of town and stick to the main highway, which is like a two lane highway in the United States. Things were a bit easier in another little town we stopped at for lunch, but getting in and out was still a challenge. We got to Ronda in the evening. Throughout this drive we crossed several mountain ridges, with spectacular views. I may have mentioned this, but Spain is the second most mountainous country in Europe after Switzerland, so the images you may have seen of the dry, flat plains of La Mancha, while accurate, are not representative.

Ronda might qualify as a small city.  It straddles a deep gorge which separates the truly old, and partly Muslim, part of town from the newer town.  Our hotel, along with others, straddles the gorge and the views were striking.  Ronda also has the first formal bullring in Spain and we took a tour, which was more interesting than I thought it might be. They let us walk into the center of the bullring and standing there in the sun looking up at the rows of seats, you got some sense of the excitement / tension a matador might feel waiting for the bull to enter the ring.

We also went for a hike outside of town, which led us down a rural country road for far longer than we thought it would be.  When we got back to the edge of town, we were tired, hungry and thirsty, so we  stopped at the first place we could find.  It was a small restaurant, clearly frequented by locals, as [we] were still on the outer edge of the town, away from the tourist sites.  It was actually quite good food, with a new treat, deep, but lightly, fried olives. They were delicious, and we have not seen them before or since.

Tour Groups

Since, up until Ronda we had avoided the more famous tourist spots in Andalucia, Ronda was our first, but not to be our last, encounter on the trip with throngs of tourists, especially tour groups. Interesting at first, they became somewhat of a nuisance during the remainder of our trip, because they involved large groups all trying to see the same thing at one time or trying to get to one place at the same time.

A large number of these tour groups were Asian, which surprised us, but probably should not have. After all, there is a lot of money in China, Japan and Korea, even if not distributed equally, and the desire to see and experience new things is, I am sure, common across all cultures. I suppose in the overall scheme of things this influx of Asian tourists into Europe is a good thing bringing an exposure to different cultures; however, the Asian tour groups were more of a nuisance because, probably due to more complete unfamiliarity with the language, they tended to stick very close to the tour leader and each other. If they were coming, just get out of the way.

Of course, there were many other Asian tourists in small groups, often families, who behaved just like any other tourists, so I am not attributing this to any cultural distinction, with one possible caveat. While hardly unique, we noticed the Asian tourists almost universally tended to want to take “selfie” photographs of the sights, perhaps just to show that they had been to the Leaning Tower of Pisa or Palace of the Popes in Avignon. Not a problem of course (unless you were in their shot), just amusing.

We thought the tourists in Ronda were bad, but little did we know. First of all there were no cruise ships for hundreds of miles. And Ronda is nowhere near as well known as Rome, Venice or Florence. (See next email covering Italy.)

Cave Paintings

About an hour outside of Ronda, there is a cave with cave paintings which date back, according to our guide, some 30,000 years.  He said they could be dated because the pigments contained animal fat and could be carbon dated. Apparently the cave was used as a site for prehistoric art for thousands of years; interestingly, the most realistic paintings were the oldest ones. It was remarkable, even though caves are not my favorite places, and this cave was not illuminated in order to keep down changes in temperature and humidity which can destroy the paintings. They also make you go in small groups to minimize those -changes.  To avoid the crowds, and waits, we choose to drive out on Monday morning, on our way out of Ronda. There were just three couples, one from Germany and one from England and us.  Fortunately the guide could speak passable English.

After a beautiful drive out of the mountains, we drove back to Malaga.  We spent a night in a hotel near the airport.  On Tuesday, June 2, we flew to Rome.  I do not want to make this too long, so I will break up our travels.  Italy will be the next email, I promise.

Spanish Politics

I have not been always able to buy El Pais every day, so I have to pick up the latest in Spanish politics piecemeal.  The short answer is that it is a bit of mess right now.  They had elections at the end of May  in many cities and some provinces.  Nowhere did any party win an absolute majority, so governments were built by cooperation, which was a messy process. The national general elections will be this Fall, so the parties are still leery of being too closely identified with other parties.  (I think there is no chance that one party will [win] an absolute majority in those elections either; then things will get really interesting!)

The big losers were the Popular Party, the ruling conservative party.  They lost control over a lot of provinces and major cities including Madrid and Barcelona. By and large, the left gained ground by agreeing to cooperate more with each other.  Both Madrid and Barcelona have new mayors from the populist parties (to be distinguished from the Popular Party, which is conservative) and both cities will be introducing new left-leaning measures.  In Madrid it will be to stop evictions, and in Barcelona to freeze the number of tourist accommodations in the city for several years.  Still, there is much unrest in the parties. The PP has shaken up its leadership, although not at the top where Mariano Rajoy, the current president, will lead their ticket. Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos, the strongest of the populist parties, and perhaps the most left-wing, is quarreling with about everybody else on the center and the left, so it may be hard for him to form a government either.

The separatist movement in Cataluña is somewhat disorganized.  They want to run a single ticket of independence supporters in the provincial elections scheduled for September, but they claim that they do not want “politicians,” so we will see how that ends up. Recent polls show that if there were a clear choice as to independence, it would narrowly fail.  As I understand it (and predicted earlier), the other members of the European Union have indicated that they would not automatically grant an independent Cataluña membership or allow them to continue to use the Euro.  This would make independence a costly affair (see Greece!), and I think it will narrowly fail.

Given the heating up of our presidential race in the United States, it is easy to think that Spanish politics is merely an amusing sideshow.  It is, I suppose, but it does have  consequences for the United States.  Of all of the political parties in Spain, I think that the Popular Party, which is the most conservative, has been, and would be the more reliable partner with the United States in international matters of mutual interest.  I cannot bring myself to cheer for them however, because there is just so much corruption in the party.  They are not the only ones, but have been much more tarnished by it.  I simply think that they have squandered the right to govern. Whether a Socialist government would still work with the United States is certainly possible, but I think a Pablo Iglesias-led government will be very prickly to deal with on international matters.

Spanish Football

Well, my favorite team, Barcelona, pulled off a rare triple crown by winning the Spanish premier league, (which is decided by league standings; there are no playoffs as such,) the Kings Cup, which is a tournament open to all Spanish clubs, and finally the European Champions League Tournament. There is no active football in Europe for the summer, so more time on my hands.

Of course, being soccer, the other news was off the field.  The most important was the indictment by the United States government of many top officials in FIFA, the world governing body for soccer, for taking bribes to award tournaments, such as the World Cup, and marketing contracts. Probably will be plenty of plea agreements, further indictments, and embarrassment all around. No one thinks this will be the end of it.  It caused the resignation of Sepp Blatter, the Swiss who has be head of FIFA for decades, which many believe was long overdue. (In all fairness, Blatter was not named in the indictment, but there is no telling if he might have been later.)

Meanwhile, consistent with my “rich get richer” complaint, both Real Madrid and Barcelona are busy trying to buy the best players from other clubs in the league.  Do not expect their dominance to fade any time soon.

18 July 2015

'On the Town'

Wanna see a T. rex fossil dance?  How ’bout a clan of cavemen?  Then head down to the Museum of Natural History.  No, not the one in Central Park at 79th Street—the one at the Lyric Theatre on 42nd Street west of 7th Avenue.  That’s where On the Town is on stage.  The current revival of Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green’s World War II musical is, if nothing else, a romp, mostly a throw-back to the heyday of old-fashioned musical comedy—before it had to be rechristened “musical theater” or even “musical drama”—with a little tweaking for the 21st century.  It doesn’t deal with anything serious or substantial; it’s all about having fun—the audience in the theater; the sailors and their girls in a Lifesaver-colored New York, New York (that dancing T. rex is lemon yellow, for example); and, we trust, the dancers, singers, and actors on stage and the musicians in the pit.  My companion, Diana, said she hadn’t realized how “corny” the book of On the Town is, but I enjoyed myself despite the execrable weather outside (a drenching rain).

1944’s On the Town is a legendary American musical, with book and lyrics by Comden and Green—their first collaboration for the Broadway stage—and music by Bernstein (his first Broadway score).  To complete the foursome, Jerome Robbins, whose ballet for the American Ballet Theatre, Fancy Free, that premièred on 18 April that same year, had been the foundation of the musical, was brought in to choreograph, also his first musical theater gig.  (The original Broadway outing that opened on 28 December at the Adelphi Theatre, now demolished, was directed by the veteran—and immensely successful—George Abbott.)  It ran over a year, accumulating 462 performances; Comden and Green were among the interracial cast, appearing as Claire de Loone, a not-so-repressed anthropologist, and Ozzie, the lead sailor who meets her at the museum, respectively.  In 1949, MGM, which had helped finance the stage show in return for the movie rights, turned On the Town into a film starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly (as Chip and Gabey, the two other principal swabbies), but the studio replaced all the songs except “New York, New York” with Hollywood fare.

Later productions of On the Town didn’t meet with a great deal of success.  The London première in 1963 closed after 63 performances, the 1971 and ’98 Broadway revivals ran for only 73 and 69 performances each (despite the presence in the cast of Phyllis Newman, Bernadette Peters, and Donna McKechnie in the ’71 restaging).  The 1998 version had been a transfer by the Public Theater from its summer season at the outdoor Delacorte Theater which had been a popular hit, but apparently suffered from the move indoors.

Concert presentations have been popular, starting with a 1992 semi-staging by Michael Tilson Thomas leading the London Symphony Orchestra which then was remounted with the San Francisco Symphony in 1996.  New York City’s Encores! presented a concert version of On the Town in 2008, directed by John Rando, who staged the 2014 Broadway revival, and featuring Tony Yazbeck as Gabey, a role he repeated in the staging I saw. 

The English National Opera placed the musical in its repertory in 2007.  New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse mounted a revival in 2009 and in 2013, Rando directed a production of On the Town for the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, with essentially the same cast as the one that opened at the Lyric (formerly the Foxwoods, after a slew of previous renamings) on 16 October 2014.  The current staging started previews on Broadway on 20 September 2014, accumulating 288 performances as of this writing (28 June).  The Hollywood Reporter has reported that the revival’s producers are planning a National Tour in the 2015-16 season to coincide with the centennial of Bernstein’s birth.  (Some listings indicate that On the Town plans to close by 1 September to go out on the tour, but the Internet Broadway Database, maintained by the Broadway League, doesn’t list a closing date.)  My friend Diana and I saw the performance at the Lyric on Saturday evening, 27 June; we picked up tickets for the two-hour-and-thirty-five minute show (with one intermission) at TDF’s discount TKTS booth in Duffy Square.

I won’t do a detailed synopsis of the plot; it’s so well known and far too easy to look up.  I’ll just say that it’s set in wartime New York City and tells the story of three sailors, Chip, Gabey, and Ozzie, on liberty from their ship for a mere 24 hours.  (At pre-set, there’s a giant American flag filling the proscenium, and then the orchestra plays “The Star-Spangled Banner”—substituting for a formal overture—bringing the audience to its feet, the first time I’ve seen that in an American theater, though the Brits still do it.)  During their day in the Big City, they plan to see all the famous sights and “pick up a date . . . .  Maybe seven . . . .  Or eight” on their way.  They do less well with the first goal than the second, as Gabey, the romantic, falls in love with the photo on the subway of the new Miss Turnstiles, Ivy Smith (there was an actual Miss Subways contest from 1941 to 1976); Ozzie, the stud, meets Claire de Loone, an anthropologist working at the Museum of Natural History, and they get “Carried Away” (the raucous number, written by Comden and Green for themselves, that includes the dancing T. rex—an honest-to-God hoot); and the schedule-making, sight-seeking Chip (whose family name is Offenblock—get it?) finds trouser-chasing Hildy (for Brunhilde, no less) Esterhazy in wait in her cab for a likely passenger.  The story’s mostly improbable—especially if you actually know New York City!—but no one cares, because it’s all a helluva fantasy and part of the fun is seeing the shipmates get into difficulties (they start right out when Gabey removes the poster of Ivy from its frame and an old lady rats his theft of city property to a cop) and then get out pretty much by dumb luck.  You know they will, but it’s how it happens that’s the heart of the play.  So, hang on, for just as Hildy gives Chip a whirlwind, high-speed tour of the entire city (she can’t wait to get him to “Come Up to My Place”), Comden, Green, Bernstein, Rando, Joshua Bergasse (the choreographer who drew from Robbins’s spirit), and Beowulf Boritt (the set and projection designer) give us one helluva view of this “vistor’s place”!  (The New York City PR organization has recently—just about when On the Town opened—launched an ad campaign to urge New Yorkers to “See Your City.”  If city-dwellers don’t want to be actual tourists in their hometown, a visit to On the Town comes close to being a virtual substitute.  But with singing and dancing.)

(A joke in Comden and Green’s book is that Chip has a guidebook his father gave him from the older man’s visit to the City in 1934.  Most of the places in it the sailor’s supposed to see—“I promised Daddy I wouldn't miss on any”—were gone by 1944, like the Hippodrome, which closed in 1939; the famous Woolworth Building, which Chip reads was the tallest building in the world, no longer holds that title, Hildy tells him, now that they have the Empire State.  Since the play’s first run, however, many of the places named in the libretto are also gone now, too; the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where the men’s ship is docked, closed in 1966, for instance, and though the Woolworth Building is still around, Woolworth’s five-and-dimes aren’t.  Nonetheless, the Bronx is still up and the Battery’s still down—and the people still ride in a hole in the ground!)

Diana’s right, of course: On the Town is silly.  I don’t know if Rando and the Barrington Stage Company hoked the play up to sell it in Pittsfield (I’d never seen the musical on stage before, oddly enough, just the bowdlerized movie), but there are some obvious insertions.  (This production has a racially mixed cast, but that turns out not to be a 21st-century innovation: the 1944 Broadway staging included African-American performers and Ivy was played by Japanese-American dancer Sono Osato.)  Director Rando indulged the urge to tweak the script and score with “additional material” supplied by playwrights Robert Cary and Jonathan Tolins which sometimes calls attention to itself.  A running gag throughout the show, for example, is the same two women (Flossie and her Friend)—in the subway, on the street, in an elevator—whom we overhear in mid-conversation.  Flossie’s obviously having an affair with her boss, Mr. Godolphin.  At Carnegie Hall, we see two men entering one of the rehearsal rooms—and they’re having the same conversation about Mr. Godolphin, clearly a bit of re-casting for the present day that’s not likely to have occurred in 1944.  But, as I’ve admitted many times on ROT, I have nearly no critical distance when it comes to these old-time musicals, so little of this detracted from my enjoyment. 

So there’s little point in discussing the book—it’s no more than a vehicle for the songs and performances.  It’s probably worth noting that Bernstein’s music, though substantial and lovely, produced only one iconic song, “New York, New York.”  As befits a play derived from a ballet, however, almost all the songs are dance numbers, and the execution of both the singing and the dancing, including the choreography of Joshua Bergasse, was almost universally superb.  Bergasse, best known as the choreographer for the TV series Smash (2012–2013), is also certified by the Jerome Robbins Foundation for whom he teaches the dances in another Bernstein-Robbins collaboration, West Side Story.  He seems to have set about to spiff up Robbins’s original choreography for On the Town (which only survives as fragments), drawing on the character of Robbins’s work rather than reinventing it entirely.  (I may not have seen On the Town on stage before, but I have seen Robbins’s theater work, including 1989’s Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.)  His work and that of his dancers is sprightly and acrobatics-packed (for the most part—the exception is “Imaginary Coney Island,” Chip’s dream about meeting Ivy after having lost her earlier, which is romantic and heartfelt).  Bergasse was nominated for the Best Choreography Tony and the Outstanding Choreography Drama Desk Award for 2015.

Some reviewers back in October complained that Rando’s pacing was haphazard and uneven.  I didn’t find that, and maybe over the ensuing eight months, the performance has evened out in the huge Broadway theater it now occupies (the Lyric, at 1,930 seats, is the second largest house on Broadway), acquiring its rhythm.  The director has managed to take what Ben Brantley called in the New York Timesa seemingly limp 1944 artifact,” and breathe vibrant, delightful, silly life back into it.  (Rando was a 2015 nominee for the Tony for Best Direction of a Musical.)

The six principal performers, Clyde Alves (Ozzie), Jay Armstrong Johnson (Chip), Tony Yazbeck (Gabey), Megan Fairchild (Ivy), Alysha Umphress (Hildy), and Elizabeth Stanley (Claire), each do outstanding work in the voice and footwork departments, establishing their own styles and personalities even when dancing and singing in pairs and groups.  (Johnson has a flair for physical comedy, especially visible in his wild ride in Hildy’s cab.)  They all sing wonderfully, and each actor has his or her unique delivery style, with particular emphasis on Stanley’s Claire.  (The singing is marred to an extent by the miking, which flattens everything out and makes it hard to determine where a voice on stage is coming from.  I’m sure it’s easier on the singers, but, as I’ve said before, I still wish the theater’d go back to the way they did it before amplification became the norm.)  Fairchild is a principal ballerina with the New York City Ballet, but the others are all theater and Broadway vets who here simply validate their chops as musical theater up-and-comers.  Fairchild makes an impressive début—she’s the only one of the main six who wasn’t in the BSC production and this is her first performance outside the ballet world—and she won the 2015 Theatre World Award for her role in On the Town.  Overall, and I don’t intend this as faint praise, the whole ensemble is charming and delightful, particularly in fulfilling their main purpose: delivering fun.  (Yazbeck was nominated for the 2015 Tony for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical and Stanley was a nominee for the 2015 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical.) 

Beyond these, some wonderful characterizations are salted through the production, including Jackie Hoffman’s portrayal of Maude P. Dilly, Ivy’s dipso voice teacher at Carnegie Hall (Hoffman plays a number of other old biddies, each a gem of a comic turn); Michael Rupert’s Pitkin W. Bridgework, the over-indulgent fiancé of Claire de Loone; Lucy Schmeeler, Hildy’s rheumy roommate as played by Allison Guinn; and Jess LaProtto, who plays S. Uperman (that’s right!), Hildy’s dyspeptic taxi-company boss.  These are essentially vaudeville blackout performances (lest we forget that Comden and Green started with short comedy sketches), but they’re wonderfully eccentric and perfectly presented.  (The timing by this cast is universally flawless.  If there’s laugh to be had, even a cheap one, they find it.)  I must make one special acknowledgement, to Nicholas Ward as the dock worker who sings the real opening number (before “New York, New York”), “I Feel Like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet”: his deep, rich baritone is awfully reminiscent of Paul Robson, with the same soul and heart I hear on recordings of Robson’s “Old Man River.”  A gorgeous rendition of the longing to stay home with his woman and baby in his warm bed, rather than face the pre-dawn cold and hard labor of dock work. 

The sets (Boritt), costumes (Jess Goldstein), and lighting (Jason Lyons) all add immensely to the bright fantasy that is On the Town’s New York City.  Boritt’s skeletal scenery, like the drawings in an expressionistic comic book (sorry, graphic novel), are augmented by his whimsical, flashing projections of the skyline (especially as seen from Brooklyn), looming streetscape (whizzing past as Hildy careens around the city “from Yonkers on down to the Bay” with Chip), Coney Island (the setting for that dream ballet) and Times Square (another ballet milieu), and much more.  Lit by Lyons, the stage of the Lyric can’t be mistaken for any real New York City, but the one in the fantasies of all who don’t actually live here (and some who do, I’m sure)—the one evoked by the iconic song nearly everyone thinks of in connection with the city where “no one lives on account of the pace.”  Goldstein’s costumes just as strongly suggest the different kinds of “Manhattan women” (and a few men, too) the boys meet during their one-day liberty.  And then there are those Navy whites!  I’ve always found it funny when dancers are dressed as swabbies—maybe it’s the bellbottoms that wiggle and flap or the middy blouses that ride up and the neckerchiefs that flop around—and On the Town makes terrific use of this phenomenon. 

There was lots of press on this production—including out-of-town papers like the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune—which I suppose isn’t surprising given its iconic status in the world of musical theater.  The reviews were generally on the same wavelength for the most part, although there was some disagreement about the effectiveness of Boritt’s sets as well as Rando’s directing—and about half the notices panned Jackie Hoffman’s comedy and half lauded it to the skies.  (One thing upon which everybody but one journalist agreed was the marvelous performance given by Megan Fairchild in her first speaking role and Broadway début.)  

In the New York Post, Elisabeth Vincentelli called On the Town “Leonard Bernstein’s joyous musical” and observed that “Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s book and lyrics still crackle and pop after all these decades.”  She complained, however, that since On the Town is “already written funny, . . . director John Rando’s frantic oversell can feel a little desperate.”  Further, “It’s also hard to get past Beowulf Boritt’s pedestrian, pastel-colored set and his eyesore projections, which do little to bring the ’40s to life,” said the NYP reviewer.  “But that can’t dim the glittering gem that is ‘On the Town,’ with its delirious, high-energy score, which seamlessly incorporates Tin Pan Alley, boogie woogie and even a Brecht-Weill pastiche.”  Vincentelli, however, reserved special praise for “[t]he show’s golden asset,” Megan Fairchild, who’s “graceful and strikes breathtakingly beautiful lines.”  Pronounced Vincentelli ,“The show explodes with unfettered joy every time she’s onstage.”

Declaring On the Town “a show about sex that you can take the whole family to,” the New York Times’ Ben Brantley called the production at the Lyric a “jubilant revival” and a “merry mating dance” that “feels as fresh as first sunlight.”  The Timesman went on to say, “If there’s a leer hovering over ‘On the Town,’ . . . it’s the leer of an angel.”  In his rave review of the revival, Brantley had high praise for all the actor-singer-dancers, including the supporting cast, as well as the designers, choreographer, orchestra, and director.  (Music director James Moore, conducting a 28-piece orchestra, used the original 1944 arrangements for the score.)  Characterizing On the Town as “fizzy and frisky” in the Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz said that not only do the play’s sailors “get lucky,” but “[t]he audience does, too.”  The show “feels like a big, juicy kiss,” Dziemianowicz wrote.  The director, said the Newsman, “mines the script for all its boisterous humor and smartly makes space for hushed interludes” and he also praised the entire company collectively and individually, noting, “The look of the show is chipper and bright.”  Dziemianowicz did cavil about Boritt’s set designs, describing them as “head-scratchers”: “Set pieces add modern flourishes but overdo the cartoonishness. That includes clear plastic skyscrapers and a lemon-yellow T. rex.”  “Even so,” the News review-writer concluded, “it’s a helluva entertainment.”

“When did you last see a big-budget musical that made you want to shout with joy?” asked Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal.  Then he announced that On the Town “is everything a great show should be,” adding that “anyone who isn’t thrilled by this tinglingly well-staged production needs a heart transplant.”  Nonetheless, Teachout admonished readers that On the Town “is far more than a piece of fancy fluff, and while John Rando, the director, is a recognized master of comic timing who could make a funeral funny, he never skimps on warmth.  Neither does his cast . . . .”  Heaping plaudits on the designers, music director, and ensemble, the WSJ reviewer instructed readers, “I urge you to see it as soon as you possibly can.”  USA Today’s Elysa Gardner warned us that the director, choreographer, and music director “have mined the show . . . for all its raw poignance, without sacrificing any of its jazzy wit or exuberant romanticism,” resulting in a show “that will leave you both exhilarated and haunted.”  “The superb cast has great fun,” reported Gardner, but admonished us, “Great musical theater doesnt require total escapism, after all, any more than unconditional happy endings,” referring to the touchingly sad finale, “Some Other Time,” when the squids and their new-found girlfriends say goodbye shipside, knowing they may never see each other again—as the boys go off to war.

In the Financial Times, Brendan Lemon called the production a “joyous, amusing revival” in which “sailors on shore leave have never seemed so deliriously horny.”  Linda Winer of Long Island’s Newsday described this On the Town as an “altogether loving, good-humored, skimpy-looking but imaginative frolic”  that “just is a breezy, peppy, pleasantly libidinous valentine to New York-New York.”  Winer, like several other reviewers, lamented the lack of reference to the fighting of World War II (they all seem to forget that, my comment above aside, this was intended in 1944 to be escapist theater from that very concern), scolded Jackie Hoffman for “overdoing four comic cameos” (including Maude P. Dilly), complained that “the two big ballet scenes don't build into more than serviceable pastiche,” and took director Rando to task because he “doesn't delineate Gabey's two pals . . . enough.”  Winer concluded that On the Town “needs a throat-catching sense of the world outside to make it more than diverting.”

Rex Reed stated in the New York Observer, in one of the only truly negative notices, “The latest (and best) in a long line of mostly second-rate Broadway revivals . . . brings back all the songs from the original 1944 stage production . . . .  But the star wattage [of the 1949 film] stayed home . . . .”  The gifted actors, Reed added, “erase no golden memories of MGM magic.”  Complaining that Yazbeck, for all his obvious talent, is “no Gene Kelly,” Reed persisted in comparing the 2014 Broadway revival to the Bernstein-less MGM flick; even the shipmates’ three dates “couldn’t fill Vera-Ellen’s  toe shoes . . .  can’t carry Ann Miller’s tap shoes . . . [or] lacks the endearing charm and comic timing of Betty Garrett.”  (Those would be the movie’s Ivy, Claire, and Hildy.)  The Observinator went on to dub the revival “a very good summer stock production,” adding that “what it does best . . . is serve as a reminder of what a monumental job . . . the MGM geniuses . . . did . . .,” explaining, “They knew how to edit, condense and shape, achieving the kind of sizzling momentum the current (uneven) On the Town often misses.”  Reed summed up with: “You won’t be bored by all the gridlock in On the Town, but there’s so much of it!  And it’s entirely too long for its own good.”  (Oh, and Reed was the sole writer to pan Fairchild’s Miss Turnstiles, declaring that “she can’t act, and on the rare occasions when she does speak, her articulation is full of rocks.”)

In New York, Jesse Green described On the Town as “a heartbreakingly youthful work: both about youth and by youth” (Comden, Green, Bernstein, and Robbins’s average age when they created the musical was 27!); the “crowd-pleaser” revival is “as big and breakneck and beautiful as ever.”  Green complained of some “insufferable missteps” that carried over from the original to the revival, such as a “plot [that] is somewhat random” and “the effortfully silly character names” (Chip Offenblock, Claire de Loone, Pitkin W. Bridgework), but the play “triumphs over” them.  Green also affirmed that “the musical aspects of the revival . . . are first-rate,” praising both the singers and the orchestra.  He does quibble with some aspects of Boritt’s scenic design and projections, and even some of the principal acting and Rando’s insertion of “shtick” in both the songs and dances, which “begins to suggest that director John Rando does not trust the material.”  In the end, though, the man from New York urged: “If for no other reason than Some Other Time—and there really are plenty—get yourself, by warship or taxi, to On the Town.”

In the New Yorker, Robert Gottlieb used most of his review to compare the new On the Town, not to the movie (for doing which he took Rex Reed to task) but to the original 1944 première, which he says he saw when he was 14.  He spent about half his column describing his youthful experience of that surprising event, then, disparaging the reviews of Reed and Ben Brantley, who’s report made him “prepared to loathe” the revival, until “the wonderful songs started turning up, and the very capable dancing”—of which he caviled “there may be a little too much.”  The 2014 production, “a big, brassy spectacle worthy of Vegas,” Gottlieb reported, “is a lot of fun on its own terms.”  The New Yorker review-writer asserted, despite some “longueurs,” that “there are high spots” as well.  Compared to the “touch of amateurism” in the original, in the revival “there isn’t a moment of anything but slick professionalism, but there are worse crimes.”  Gottlieb concluded, “This is the ‘On the Town’ that can make it in today’s showbiz, and I’m glad that today’s audience is eating it up and restoring it to its proper place in the pantheon.”

Acknowledging that out of On the Town’s “paper-thin premise, the original collaborators spun loopy magic,” the Village Voice’s Jacob Gallagher-Ross declared, “And director John Rando’s new production delivers the goods: . . . the gushing effervescence of just-uncorked Champagne.”  “It’s a confection, but a delightful one,” Gallagher-Ross affirmed, and he advised, “Somewhere inside every jaded New Yorker, there’s an awestruck, aw-shucks sailor, still besotted by the city and crying for some shore leave.  So indulge your inner rube and take in the new revival of On the Town, an evergreen entertainment whose brash charms have not faded with time. . . .  They don’t make musicals like this anymore, and you’ll leave wishing that they did.”   

In the entertainment press, Adam Feldman of Time Out New York, delivered his “Bottom Line”: the On the Town revival is a “major production of a fairly minor work,” which he said “seems a bit like a well-mounted exhibit at some Natural History Museum of Broadway: a stuffed lark.”  The man from TONY found that, “though frisky and enjoyable” and the company does “their best to deliver a night of re-creationist recreation,” the play “does not have the strongest legs.”  In Entertainment Weekly, Thom Geier called the revival “spirited and surprisingly frank,” but sadly quipped, “The Bronx may be up, as the song goes, but the battery sometimes runs down on this production—which only occasionally hits the ebullient heights of the Empire State Building.”  Calling the On the Town revival “still a helluva show,” Marilyn Stasio said in Variety that director Rando “has given the kid-glove treatment” to the production, while Bergasse’s choreography is “classic in design and elegant in form” and “although the young and vital cast is light on acting chops, the dancing is sensational.”  Stasio, however, thought that “the show’s comic elements are much giddier than they need to be,” but “that must have seemed like the safest way to go with the show, given the limited acting range of some key players.”  “But who’s going to go to the mat on that,” the Variety reviewer added, when the “lyrics alone are enough to make any old grouch break out in a grin,” and “the sheer exuberance of the music (God bless that orchestra) gives wing to the ecstatic joy of the dance.”  David Rooney of the Hollywood Reporter dubbed the “vibrant Broadway revival” of On the Town “transporting entertainment” in which director Rando “embraces both the strengths and weaknesses.”  Rando, wrote Rooney, “is unapologetic in presenting the old-fashioned material at face value,” directing “with a mostly light touch.”  The HR review-writer ended by declaring that in this “beguiling” revival, “there’s ample pleasure on offer.” 

The cyber press came to mostly the same conclusions about this production of On the Town.  David Gordon observed on TheaterMania, “Bigger isn’t always better,” complaining that the small, human staging at BSC had grown outsized, “pushing the humor to the furthest reaches of the third balcony of this massive house.”  On the other hand, however, the TM reviewer added, “there are six central performances so exceptional that they make up for said deficiencies.”  Gordon warned, “As funny as On the Town is, it is also sneakily poignant, resting on an emotional transparency that here is only apparent in fits and starts” and “the cast members fall too often into easy laughs that are more distracting than they are funny.”  The on-line review-writer ended with, “But we should be thankful no matter what,” even though “[w]ith a little more faith in the material and a little less desire to push for laughs, Rando would have a perfectly calibrated production on his hands.”  On CurtainUp, Elyse Sommer found the Broadway revival of On the Town, like its Pittsfield predecessor, “a wonderfully performed and staged musical,” only the new incarnation is “bigger and more Broadway-ish.”  With praise for all the artists, performing, design, and directorial, of the new mounting, Sommer concluded, “For a night on the town, with unforgettable numbers like the moving ‘Lonely Town’ with its dreamy dancing you can’t beat this On the Town for old fashioned fun, glorious music and breathtaking dancing.”

New York Theatre Guide’s Casey Curtis quipped, “There is a candy store in the lobby of the Lyric Theatre.  It serves beautifully displayed and wrapped sweets.  This is exactly what you should expect inside the Lyric Theatre as well when you see ‘On The Town.’”  Curtis explained that the “show is a feast for the eyes and ears, a beautifully wrapped sweet,” but warned that “the sugar rush leads to a bit of a crash as the plot is thin as cellophane; “nonetheless,” the NYTG reviewer concluded, “this is a high quality confection.”  Director Rando, Curtis affirmed, “impressively finds comedy at every turn”; Boritt’s designs “are delightful,” and choreographer Bergasse “stages one superb dance number after another.”  “Candy is not nutritious,” the cyber reviewer summed up, “but there is a reason we love it—it makes us feel good.  ‘On the Town’ will make you laugh and bring delight . . . .”  On Talkin’ Broadway, Matthew Murray called On the Town, “a swanked-up” revival that’s been “choreographed to a frothy fare-thee-well.”  Even though “this is hardly the best imaginable mounting of this show,” Murray felt that “it comes close enough to be worth a trip.”  Most important, the characters “have and reveal fun, which is all that On the Town really has on its mind,” which makes the play “simply put, what musical theatre should be.”  Murray found, however, that “flaws begin to creep in—not big ones, mind you, but lesser problems that, after a while, add up.”  He named the erratic direction, the production’s inconsistent energy, and the uneven cast as well as Rando’s “urge to implement minor tweaks to the script and score.”  Murray’s final assessment, though, is that “when it’s allowed to be itself, in all its glittering ’40s glory, there’s no greater show—or time machine—in town.”  Steven Suskin of the Huffington Post reported of On the Town that “this romp of a spree is cookin’ with gas” and the spirit of the four creators remains “in sparkling shape.”  Rando and Bergasse, Suskin asserted, “have precisely the right touch” and the revival “hits the jackpot” with the six principal actors.  The BSC-derived revival of On the Town, summed up Suskin, “is a dandy singing & dancing spree.” 

13 July 2015

The Beatles’ Influence

by Kirk Woodward

[My friend Kirk Woodward is back again with another contribution to ROT—his latest installment of his ad hoc series on the Beatles and their hold on him over the years.  Those of you who weren’t around in the ’60s or were still too young in the second half of that decade to have experienced the arrival and surge in popularity of the Beatles can only have a second-hand understanding of what that group and their musical and social influence meant to on my generation.  I was a huge Beatles fan myself, buying their 45’s and LP’s as soon as they hit the record stores (no downloading in those days!).  I even became aware of them a little before the earth-shaking début on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 that introduced them to America because I was in high school in Europe and, many of my classmates being British, I started hearing the Beatles as soon as they came out in England.  I was listening to them on the radio—we listened to Radio Luxembourg, the pirate station European teens tuned to for the hottest in rock ’n’ rolland on record players in my dorm.  But I just listened (and, of course, memorized the lyrics virtually by osmosis); Kirk, being musically knowledgeable even then, took his devotion to the Fab Four a step further and listened to the music and musicianship.  As for his late wife, Pat, whose diary about her commitment to Beatle fandom . . . well, dedicated ROTters will have learned about that 2½ years ago.

[“The Beatles’ Influence,” then, is Kirk’s analysis and discussion of that pervasive influence, not just on the generation of fans and musicians that came of age in the late ’60s, but the ones that came after.  Kirk contends, with solid reason, that we are still feeling that influence 46 years after the group broke up.  John and George are gone now, Ringo’s a different kind of star in his own right, and Paul had moved into new areas of music—but the Beatles of our imaginations hangs in there.  The greatest rock band ever!  (Think I’m a generational chauvinist?  What can I say!)

When this blog posted the Beatle diary written by my late wife Pat (see “The Beatles Diary,” 8 January 2013), a friend took note of a sentence I’d written to the effect that the Beatles had changed Pat’s life. Exactly how, he asked, had that happened, or might I be exaggerating their effect on her?

I wrote back:

I think [the Beatles] opened her up to the fact that the world offers more possibilities than we might realize. Her family was basically poor, the one artistic influence in her family (her father was a jazz pianist) was often traveling, and she went to traditional Catholic schools. The Beatles pretty much blasted this background all over the place.

I was in England a few years later on one of Lee Kahn’s theater trips [Lee was my theater teacher and mentor] and heard a number of London theater people say how much the Beatles had opened everything up for them, both in terms of art and of class. I think the[ir and Pat’s] situations were probably parallel.

Although she didn’t remain fanatical about the Beatles as such, I know she never forgot about the possibilities of surprise that art can provide. I’m putting that in a pretentious way, but I just mean that her experience of encountering the Beatles meant that at any time, something wonderful could happen.

I’ve written extensively about the Beatles for this blog (aside from the diary, see also “The Beatles and Me,” 7 October 2010, and “The Beatles Box,” 30 September 2012), and I’m not sure I haven’t already said all I have to say about them, but it might be useful to write specifically about their influence on others – only the subject is so vast that nothing short of a book could adequately cover it. So I’ll try to present what for me are some of the high points of their impact, keeping always in mind that there’s much more to say about each aspect, and that many others have covered the same territory in more detail.

It strikes me that the discussion should have two parts: the effects of the Beatles on Pat, and their effects on all of us. A further qualification: this article is about their influence, not their art, although one can hardly leave their remarkable artistic achievements out of the discussion – the two are closely linked.

If we look at the Beatles the way they must have first appeared to Pat, particularly as their first two albums became available in the United States (early 1964), it seems likely that two things impressed her. One was their clean, straightforward sound – lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, drums, and mostly unretouched vocals. Compared to their competition, their first records were remarkably simple. (One record company had turned them down with the comment that three-guitar groups were “out,” which illustrates the industry’s faith in more elaborate production at that time.)

In a way, the Beatles’ sound was home-grown – one of its major sources was the “skiffle” craze in England in the 1950s, which used household implements like washboards and tea chest basses as musical instruments. While the Beatles were not themselves a skiffle group, they kept the skiffle spirit, in particular the idea that art could spring up in unlikely places and use unlikely materials.

The Beatles’ music was also home-grown in the sense that from the beginning they wrote and recorded their own songs, in addition to recording songs written by others. The message, which took a while to sink in, was that art wasn’t a possession of the elite – anyone could create it. Not all singers and groups started recording their own material right away, of course; but the next wave of leaders did, including the Rolling Stones and the Who.

Am I going too far to talk about “art” when their realm was entertainment? I would say no – art is where you find it, and it quickly became apparent that although the Beatles themselves refused to claim any significance for their music, it had plenty. And they were not “certified” artists, either – no one had given them an artistic license! They did the work themselves. It began to look like anyone could do the same, if they were able.

The other thing that would have impressed Pat was the Beatles’ personalities, which quickly began to manifest themselves. They were only a few years older than Pat was, and they sounded young – again, unlike many older and/or more packaged entertainers. They also sounded unique at that time because they were not only British, but from Liverpool, with its own characteristic working class accent. And they were cheerful – not that other entertainers were not, but there was nothing lugubrious about them at all, unlike, to pick a radically opposite example, Johnny Ray (1927-1990) and his hit song “The Little White Cloud That Cried” (1951). The Beatles liked Johnny Ray, but nothing they recorded ever sounded remotely like him.

The fact that the Beatles freely shared their personalities made it possible for others to do the same. Now, of course, we probably know more about celebrities than we wish we did.

Not only were the Beatles cheerful – it quickly became apparent that they were downright funny – and occasionally downright outrageous – particularly, in the early days, at their press conferences. It became not only permissible for performers to say humorous things, it became almost mandatory. A documented example of this is that after John Lennon made his famous quip at the Royal Variety Show in London on November 4, 1963 (“In the cheaper seats, you clap your hands. The rest of you, just rattle your jewelry”), it was noted in following years that rock groups felt they had to try to equal or top John’s remark, and tried to.

The Beatles also stood up for their work. They didn’t care what people said about their hair, but they didn’t tolerate foolishness about their music. (When the press quoted a dismissive remark Noel Coward was said to have made about them, they refused to meet with him, finally sending a reluctant Paul McCartney out for a perfunctory chat.) Practically by force of will, they earned a respect for rock music that had not previously existed, and that continues to this day.

The Beatles’ collective and individual sense of humor is well known. In one sense humor is a surprising clash of attitudes, and I think that the Beatles’ humor may have had something to do with the extraordinary relationship they had with their audiences. No matter how pleased the group’s members might have seemed with the applause and even the screams they received, all of them – even Paul McCartney, the most outgoing on stage of the four – seemed to be holding something back, some reserved opinion, some secret observation. I’ve always felt that the crowds screamed at them to get their full attention – sensing all the while that they couldn’t, that the Beatles would never entirely give themselves away.

One additional thought about why the Beatles would have influenced Pat’s early life: I am certain that they pointed her toward her life’s work, which was performance, and in particular theater. They had complex and powerful rapport with audiences. Their performances were literally theatrical – to quote some synonyms from Merriam-Webster, “amazing, astonishing, awesome, eye-opening, fabulous, marvelous, surprising, wonderful.” Whether they did or didn’t seem that way to everyone, they did to Pat, and if their work could have that effect on her, why couldn’t her work have that effect on others? So she made that her own goal, and others felt the same way, as is clear from the remarks by London theater people that I cited above.

I admit that the way I’ve described how Pat might have felt about the Beatles in their first days is also the way I felt. Still, I’m guessing.  (I wish I could ask her.) When we move on to the influence of the Beatles on everybody, we’re on surer ground, because there’s no question that their impact has been immense, as demonstrated for example by the shelves of books that have been written about them. It’s hard to find anything new to say about them, but at least I can synthesize. . .

. . . because the Beatles in many ways were synthesizers themselves. Bernard Shaw used to stress that pioneers are not the ones who gain fame and fortune; those belong to their followers, who build on what the pioneers have created. William Shakespeare, for example, didn’t pioneer blank-verse drama; he took it and made something vibrant out of it.  Only occasionally did the Beatles do something that no one else had done before; often, though, they did it conclusively, with great effect on others.

They didn’t invent rock, but they constantly acknowledged their influences, in particular black artists. Chuck Berry, for example, commented on getting a nice little bulge in his royalty checks after the Beatles’ recording of “Roll Over Beethoven” (1956 by Berry; 1963 by the Beatles)! They incorporated musical sounds that had originated in the American black community, and didn’t try to “sound black” while singing them, but they made their admiration of artists like Berry,  Little Richard (“Long Tall Sally,” 1956), and Smokey Robinson (“You Really Got a Hold On Me,” 1962) clear, and this in itself increased awareness for those artists and others.

The Beatles rethought rock, revitalized it, and built on it, applying their own high standards of excellence. As a result rock became a respected and admired musical genre, a trend that picked up speed in the 1970s. The Beatles specialized in learning and performing versions of “B” sides (the more obscure songs that accompanied hits on 45 RPM records), which helped expand the rock repertoire. They didn’t invent the star (or Starr) drummer, since Gene Krupa (1909-1973) and Chick Webb (1905-1939), among others, had held that seat before, but after Ringo the drummer would seldom be an invisible member of a rock band.

They didn’t invent Indian, electronic, or country music, needless to say, but they incorporated all three in their work and created enormous interest and even popularity for them, influencing other groups (an important example being the Byrds), at the same time affirming the values of differing kinds of music. They didn’t invent “art rock” either, but they quickly grasped the importance of Bob Dylan’s approach to songwriting and incorporated their own version of his approach into their music and in particular into their lyrics, beginning with their song “I’m a Loser” (1964). They weren’t the first to write popular songs that weren’t love songs and weren’t for dancing – it’s unlikely that anybody would dance or cuddle to “I Am the Walrus” (1967) - but they were the first to win a huge audience over to those possibilities.

Obviously, there are some areas in which the Beatles simply did things first, beyond items like dominating the Top Ten listings for months. For example, they pioneered stadium shows with the famous first Shea Stadium concert (August 1965), and stadium shows remain a staple of rock performances. They were the first to use a sitar on a popular record, the first rock group to record a song with a background of strings alone, the first in England to bring the bass line to prominence in the sound balance of a recording, the first to record a song with no ending (“I Want You/She’s So Heavy,” 1969).                        

Technically, too, the musical influence of the Beatles was enormous.  They – meaning the Beatles, their producer George Martin, and the engineers that worked with them – used tape loops, deliberately recorded feedback, overdubbing and “flanging” (John invented the word – officially called Artificial Double Tracking or ADT, the process of double-tracking vocals without the singer having to repeat the song), distortion effects, ad libs and chatter, randomly recorded sounds, and unique ways of using a microphone, all of which are now commonplaces in recordings.

In their records they included influences as varied as old musicals (“Till There Was You,” 1963; from The Music Man, 1957 ), references to old movies (“Honey Pie,” 1968), and old blues (“Matchbox,” 1964; from Carl Perkins, 1956, and previously, Ma Rainey, 1924), all the way to the aural landscapes of Karlheinz Stockhausen (“Revolution 9,” 1968). They made or achieved the first substantial popularity for music videos (later the basis for MTV), the “concept album” (1967’s Sergeant Pepper was quickly followed by the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Past and by The Who Sell Out, both 1967), and the rock suite (the “long medley” at the end of Abbey Road, 1969, an inspiration in particular for Pete Townshend with Tommy, 1969, and Quadrophenia, 1973).

They were the first rock group to have its own record label, Apple, founded by in 1968 (which led to plenty of problems, but others subsequently made the concept work, and individual labels are now commonplace), the first to print their lyrics on an album cover (for Sergeant Pepper), and participants – and major attractions – in the first global satellite broadcast (June 1967).

The list I have just made is by no means exhaustive. The social influence of the Beatles was equally powerful. I have already noted that their insistence on “being themselves” led to a greater exposure of the personal lives of performers – whether this was a positive effect or not.  John Lennon led the way for performers to express both their political and their religious opinions; he was in the forefront of opposition to the Vietnam War, and his comment that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus” had huge reverberations. Slightly less so, the group’s interest in Transcendental Meditation, and George Harrison’s espousal of Hinduism, opened the door to Asian religious practices for many. I have already suggested that the Beatles had a significant influence on theater.

The Beatles also had a huge impact on class systems – most importantly perhaps in Great Britain, which suddenly saw people on the lower social rungs mounting extraordinarily high. That leveling effect reached the United States too – in fact it was felt around the world, wherever a youthful population was interested in changing the social order. In the old Soviet Union, for example, young people bootlegged and passed around the Beatles’ records as a sort of sound track for the drive for freedom, as proven years later by Paul McCartney’s giant concert in Moscow’s Red Square (October 28, 1991), with members of the crowd waving their once forbidden copies of the Beatles’ songs.

It’s interesting to speculate how different the Beatles’ impact would have been if they had had different  personalities. I by no means idolize John, Paul, George, and Ringo, but they brought some important personal characteristics to the table. For starters, they had integrity. The composer and bass player Paul Guzzone notes that when the Beatles hit it big, they had already signed up for appearances at various bazaars and church basement socials across England. They kept those engagements! They could have wiggled out of them, but having made the obligations, they lived up to them.

The Beatles also set an example for hard work, one of course not always followed by other musicians, but one that surely must be counted as a positive influence. To read The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions by Marc Lewisohn (Hamlyn, 1988) is to be overwhelmed by how diligently – not to say successfully – they put in the long hours creating their music. (Along the way, for better or worse, they also pioneered the all-night recording session.)

The Beatles were also extraordinarily collegial. The story of their support for the Rolling Stones (frequently referred to in the press as their rivals) has often been told; they wrote the Stones’ second single (“I Wanna Be Your Man,” 1963; covered later the same month by the Beatles), and Paul McCartney has reported that the two groups coordinated the releases of their records. I was astonished to read in the autobiography of Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees that they and the Beatles were friends. The Monkees had been deliberately created as an attempt to cut into a share of the Beatles’ market. This didn’t matter at all to the Beatles. Their support of and respect for other musicians was consistent.

It may seem odd that in this piece I haven’t stressed the influence of the Beatles on the era we call the Sixties (which actually reached its fruition in the 1970’s, after the Beatles had broken up as a group). They did influence that period of time, of course, and they were influenced by it, but both interactions in my opinion have been overemphasized.  The Sixties didn’t create the Beatles, any more than the Eighteenth Century “created” Mozart. There were reciprocal influences, but great artists transcend their eras; they take what their times offer and transform it. We don’t treasure the Beatles only because they represent the Sixties to us – or if we do, we’re missing a great deal of what they offer. We treasure the Beatles because they took an enjoyable kind of entertainment and created amazing art out of it.

Topic of discussion: what would our lives be like if the Beatles had not existed? Obviously that question can be the subject of endless speculation. Some of the factors I’ve listed above would almost certainly have developed with or without the Beatles; recording techniques, for example, would not have stood still as technology grew in sophistication. Culture, like nature, abhors a vacuum; where there were gaps, something would have filled them. Still, one answer to the question “Where would we be without the Beatles” is, it seems clear to me, is: much poorer.