Thursday, January 1, 2015

Edward Herrmann: Helping Others Right Up Until the End

Like so many people, I am deeply saddened by the death of Edward Herrmann. He was an incredibly kind and decent man who remained willing to help others right up until a month before his death on New Year’s Eve.

I had no idea my email exchanges with him in November would be my last. As I had so often over the years, I was writing to ask for a favor. Not knowing he was battling brain cancer, I asked if he would write a letter for The Salvation Army’s Gala souvenir journal because The Army, where I was working temporarily as an editor/writer, was honoring The Actors Fund and we wanted letters from actors congratulating The Fund on receiving the Pinnacle of Achievement Award.

On Nov. 11, I received the following:

Dear Retta, How good to hear from you!  You probably know that I was on the Board of Directors of the Actors Fund and also have been a staunch supporter of the Salvation Army for many years.  I will be happy to send a letter for the event.  Right now I am very busy but hope to be able to pull something together by the weekend.

Bless you,
Ed H.

When he said he was very busy, I assumed he was working on one of his many acting projects. Instead, he was receiving cancer treatments. To make it easy for him, I had sent a sample letter that he could have OK-ed, but Ed always gave his full measure so he took the time to write a personal letter, which I share:

To the Salvation Army/Actors Fund,

Both of these organizations have been dear to me over the years.  I served on the board of directors of the Actors Fund and remain a Life Member.  I only left the board because I felt I couldn't give enough quality time to their wonderful work.  As for the Salvation Army, my interest and admiration began with the experience of my brother in 1967.  During the terrible race riots in Detroit, my brother was in the National Guard and saw the action first hand.  There were a few trucks handing out coffee and doughnuts, but only for a price.  The soldiers had been without food for almost twenty-four hours.  These "mercy" groups were lucky to get out with their trucks in tact... the soldiers were angry.

Only the Salvation Army was there giving comfort, hot coffee and food free of charge.  And they gave to all, whether they were soldiers trying to keep the peace, police, firemen or any civilians begging for help to save their homes.  If people were in trouble, the Army was there for them.  My brother is not a particularly religious man, but on that terrible night, he saw what real Christian goodness could accomplish.  It changed him for the better.  And it certainly reinforced my commitment to my fellow men and women.  I feel privileged to be counted among the friends of the Salvation Army and urge others to join in their wonderful work.

Edward Herrmann

Just a few weeks after writing that he would be in intensive care and now, so soon, he is gone.

I had met Ed briefly backstage at Lincoln Center in the late 1990s, but was blessed to get to know him in 2002 when we sat together for an hour or so as I interviewed him for my book Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors. He was quite open with me about his faith — he was a convert to Catholicism — and his personal life before his conversion.

“In the sixties and seventies when sex was free and there was no disease, we thought it was great,” he told me. “We could sleep with anyone and we did. It’s a lie. The fact that we did it didn’t make it true. It’s not enlightening and helpful. We didn’t look for connections, for relationships. It was a bogus rainbow hair life.”

Raised Unitarian, he found that practice lacked regularity, dependent on inspiration and enthusiasm, which can wax and wane. So he started a spiritual quest, studying Eastern religions where he was drawn to Buddhism and followed a guru for a time. But it was the rigors of Catholicism that hooked him, with the familiarity of set prayers and the transcendence of the Mass.

He told me he had created an icon-filled chapel on his property in Michigan where only he spent time, savoring the silence. He read daily from an 1880s version of The Following of Christ, a prayerbook written by the 15th century ascetic writer Thomas A Kempis. That book even went with him on acting jobs. He saw his two worlds — of faith and acting — as one. “If you’re lucky enough to have the arts as your work, you become part of the spiritual life,” he told me.

He combined those two for me by twice taking part in Broadway Blessing, the interfaith service of song, dance and story that I founded in 1997 and have been producing ever since. Just before he was to appear for the second time, to give the theatre reflection for our 10th anniversary celebration, his wife, Star, became sick. I certainly would have understood if he had canceled, but that wasn’t Ed. He drove the two hours in from Connecticut, apologized for not having had time to prepare original remarks, then went on to read the final act of Our Town, brilliantly taking on all the parts.

He told me often I could call on him any time and if he was free he would take part. It’s so hard to believe I will not be able to take him up on that offer anymore.

The last time we spoke on the phone, he told me Emma, his youngest child, was beginning acting studies. I thought that was great. I love watching next generations come along, most especially Meryl’s daughters who look, sound and gesture so much like her. I looked forward to seeing Emma develop her career and thought how wonderful it would be for her to appear with Ed. Sadly now, that will not happen.

I hope Emma will go on to achieve success in the profession her father loved so much. I will close with some of his thought in my chapter on Listening.

“What’s the point of the arts as a discipline? It’s absurd to pretend to be somebody else, a rabbit or Hamlet. It’s silly, but it isn’t. We don’t begin with reason, we begin with feeling and insight. All of life is 99 percent nonrational. Reason is nothing compared to God’s love. That’s what makes us who we are. Reason is the first thing that should be dropped when you start exploring the spirit. You can bring reason to bear on what you find, but truth simply doesn’t happen that way.”

Monday, December 29, 2014

Beware of Young Girls: Kate Dimbleby Sings the Dory Previn Story

Beware of Young Girls sounds as if it might be a sinister show, but don’t let the title fool you. The subtitle, Kate Dimbleby Sings the Dory Previn Story, lets you know you’re in for a biographical performance, one that just happens to be an engaging 80-minute, two-act journey into the life of a woman who triumphed over mental illness and being dumped by her famous husband for a younger woman, creating a successful career for herself as a songwriter and singer in the 1970s. You will find yourself liking Dory Previn and cheering her on as Dimbleby brings her to life onstage at 59E59 Theaters.

Dimbleby, who created the show with writer Amy Rosenthal, is a marvelous storyteller with a golden voice. A British singer, she had never heard of Dory Previn until several years ago when she discovered “Lady with the Braid” and was so taken with it she included it in a cabaret show, “I’m a Woman,” celebrating women singers. Her UK audiences loved it so much that Dimbleby and her pianist, Naadia Sheriff, began researching the woman who penned it and discovered a wealth of wonderful songs.

She also found a fascinating story of the woman who wrote those songs, a woman who battled schizophrenia and was severely jolted when a certain predatory young girl named Mia Farrow made a play for her husband and won him.

Directed by Cal McCrystal (One Man, Two Guvnors on Broadway), the show also features Sheriff as accompanist on piano, as harmony vocalist and occasional storyteller. Sheriff has a gorgeous voice and playful personality and she and Dimbleby work perfectly together. Excerpts from Dory Previn’s autobiographies, Midnight Baby and Bog Trotter, are included in the show, which has been performed in England and is making its United States premiere at 59E59. A CD by the same name was released in 2012.

At the start of the show, Dimbleby asked how many people knew Dory Previn’s work. Fewer than half the audience members raised their hands. I was not one of them. While we might not have known her name, plenty of the top singers of yesteryear did. Stars such as Tony Bennet, Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney and Doris Day included Previn’s songs in their repertoire.

 She also recorded her songs, with “Mythical Kings and Iguanas” being her most successful album. That title song is the first of more than 15 Dimbleby sings in the show. The song I was most familiar with, and have always loved, was “Valley of the Dolls,” which she wrote with Andre for the movie, and was a hit for Dionne Warwick.

As Dory, Dimbleby tells the up side of fame for the former Dorothy Langan, who was born in October 1925 to rigidly religious Irish Catholic parents. It was while under contract to MGM that she was assigned to collaborate with a young pianist/composer named Andre Previn.

In creative partnership with Andre, she began to find the success that had eluded her alone. Before they wed, she made a vague reference to having had a nervous breakdown, but when Andre seemed uninterested in the details, she said no more.

“Marriage to a well-known composer would open the high world to me. The tap dancer from New Jersey still had problems getting off the ground. But a peasant wife is able to squat in the shadow of her glorious lord. He spoke three languages. It was thrilling to be distantly related to those beautiful creatures who fly.”

 The couple became an established writing team, receiving several Oscar nominations. But their public and private lives were at odds, with “more crises euphemistically referred to as breakdowns.” Eventually, Dory’s illness was given a name — schizophrenia.

This experience with mental illness became the creative inspiration that propelled Andre and Dory’s writing of the soundtrack for “Valley of the Dolls.”

“Andre wrote a circular melody with a broken-up feeling that mirrors the artificially tranquilized state of mind,” Dimbleby tells us. “Dory complemented it with lyrics. Both gained wisdom through Dory’s illness and addiction to pills, but neither ever mentioned it.”

Dimbleby then sang the title song, conveying all the pain and emotion of the story behind it. The song brought Dory and Andre their dreamed-of million seller, but it was the last song they would write together. A certain young girl saw to that.

Enter Mia Farrow.

“She had come all the way across Hope and Alan Pakula’s patio just to meet us,” Dimbleby as Dory says. “The natural surroundings conspired to enhance the luminous youth. Her delicate hands clung to a square of tapestry. The skin was translucent, as though she were still wrapped in the gauze of her placenta. The voice had been gently buffed by good schools and privilege. She would never need to raise her tone to get something she wanted. She came of a film director father and a movie star mother. No pig-in-the-parlour, she. This was lace-curtain Hollywood. She was second generation MGM. And the newly famed waif wanted to be our friend.”

Of course, she went on the be more than friend to Andre. She became his wife, after becoming pregnant. Andre wrote to Dory asking for a divorce, but expressing his interest in continuing their writing collaboration. She said yes to the divorce but no to the creative partnership.

In what could be a Hollywood ending, she went on to have a successful career on her own and to find love. A friend of Andre’s whom she bumped into in a restaurant many years after her divorce introduced her to the man he was meeting, an artist and one-time Hollywood heartthrob called Joby Baker. The two married in 1984 and lived happily on a farm in New York’s Hudson Valley where she wrote the last volume of her autobiography and he illustrated it. She died on Valentine’s Day nearly three years ago and Baker continued to live at the farm.

I love stories of hardship overcome, triumphant women and happy endings. Beware of Young Girls has all of those. It continues at 59E59 Theaters through Sunday, Jan. 4.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Cafe Society Swing

Cafe Society Swing is a strange show, perfect musically from every singer and musician, but confused in its efforts to place their songs within the context of a story. I felt I was watching a split screen onstage at 59E59 Theaters, with powerhouse entertainers on the left and personified program notes playing out on the right.

Written by Alex Webb and directed by Simon Green, the two-hour show attempts to bring to life Cafe Society, the legendary jazz club that launched the careers of Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Big Joe Turner, Count Basie, Zero Mostel, Sid Caesar and Carol Channing. As the first racially integrated club in New York City (and possibly the United States), it was considered "the wrong place for the right people.” It couldn’t, however, survive the Red Scare of the late 1940s.

All of this would have made Cafe Society Swing a good play, but it’s not a play. It’s a revue, with the club’s history told through narration by Evan Pappas stationed on the right. In the first act he is a reporter investigating the suspected Communist ties of Barney Josephson, the venue’s owner who once described his goal as creating “a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front.”

Woven between his accounts, the show’s marvelous singers, Cyrille Aimée (in photo), Allan Harris, Charenee Wade and Pappas, sing the hits made famous by Horne and the like. It’s Dec. 15, 1948, the nightspot’s 10th birthday, and the reporter’s editor wants an attack story, but the more the reporter investigates, the more he is charmed by the club.

When Pappas reappears in the second act dressed as a bartender and working at the club, I laughed because I figured he had lost his reporting job. It took a few minutes for me to realize he was supposed to be a different person. That was a large part of the problem — he wasn’t developed enough to be a character in a play, because this isn’t a play, it’s a revue. To me he was more of a distraction, a narrator giving facts that I would have been much happier to have read in the program. I wanted to get back to the songs, which are wonderfully brought to life by the singers and the eight-piece jazz ensemble onstage.

Even without the singers I could have been happy with just the band — Joe Boga (trumpet), singer Harris doubling on guitar, Mimi Jones (bass), Lucianna Padmore (drums) Camille Thurman (tenor sax), Bill Todd (alto sax and clarinet), writer and musical director Webb on piano and Brent White (trombone).

Many of the songs are well-known, such as “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “All of Me,” “Stormy Weather,” “Where or When” and “Lush Life.” Others, like “Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’” and “Red Scare,” point to the club’s political slant. I thought of my mother when Aimée sang “Hurry On Down” as Nellie Lutcher. My mother loved Lutcher’s “Fine Brown Frame” and used to put nickel after nickel in jukeboxes to hear it back in her youth. Lutcher’s name hasn’t survived as well as that of Holiday, Vaughan and Horne, so it was nice to have her included. My mother would have been happy!

One of the notable songs, “Strange Fruit,” about lynched black men hanging from trees in the South and made famous by Holiday, was first sung at Cafe Society. Oddly, this song closes the show. While it is powerfully sung by Wade, it is a real downer for sending an audience out of the theatre after a musical afternoon. When Wade finished and the cast came back on stage, I expected an encore of something more upbeat, but no, they took their curtain calls and that was it.

Was this meant to be some kind of statement about the current day killings of black men by white police officers? If so, it is out of place, tacked on like that at the end. I was talking with a fellow critic at the E Bar after the show and he also questioned this ending.

The director, British singer Simon Green, is known to me for his cabaret shows at 59E59, with just himself and an accompanist. These engagements have charmed me over holiday seasons past with his lively themes — “Coward at Christmas,” “Traveling Light” and “So, This Then is Life,” each smoothly integrating songs with his recitals of writers on the subjects. That integration is missing in his directing efforts of Cafe Society Swing, which continues through Jan. 4 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St., between Park and Madison Avenues).

Ease up on the narration and let the music carry the show, which it easily can. Then Cafe Society will really swing again.  

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Truer gifts

The whole world (it seems)
is soaring into Christmas
meeting the cold with such proper spirit
hanging up pines with bulbs and best wishes,
meaningless to minds set in tradition
and premature weariness for celebrating routine.
(I never understood it either):

Being fond of dolls then
I got a new one every year
packaged in paper and parent-love.
I ripped away wrappings
and months of anticipation
to touch my own just born babies,
more real than any mangered child
mysteriously coming in the very olden days.
 They cried faucet water tears
(not salty but still strong)
I laughed at their damp faces
 No one ever told me that santa made money
by stuffing himself in a red rented suit
or that the cookies I left hot for him
were munched by the dog
as I buried my head in a pillow
white with dreams.

It alway ended too soon:
hopes flickered away as colored lights blinked
into black
brittle needles left trails behind the retreating tree
and the nativity surrendered the TV top to magazines.
Songs fled the streets and people forgot to smile
snow melted
and dolls lay broken on a closet shelf.

I shall make no neat list this year
(carefully itemized from Sears' catalog);
needing nothing in the way of plastic infants
I ask for truer gifts:
that I might glow sharper than any tinseled star
showing God's good love to every innkeeper
and all astonished shepherds.

 -- Lisa Leafstrand

Sunday, November 30, 2014

O Come, O Come

A lovely
the ground and
bare branches
with a clean white mantle.
A kind of simple purity,
not of human making.
to adorn
a sullied world.

There is a stillness to it,
a kind of holy breathing,
calm and rhythmic.
A soft sleep
before the world awakens
to rush off
to whatever waits
to claim the day.


for the unexpected

How do you prepare
for the unexpected?
By planning,
Or by
forsaking illusions of control,
and breathing,
like a peaceful night
for a new snow,

a mantle,
pure and simple,
not of human making.

-- Author unknown to me

Thursday, October 9, 2014

After a 17-year journey, Amazing Grace begins previews in Chicago

I am not what I ought to be. I am not what I hope to be. But by the grace of God, I am certainly not what I was.”  — John Newton     

     Christopher Smith had never heard of John Newton when, with a little time to spare and in search of some air conditioning, he casually browsed through the children’s section of a library in Fort Washington, PA, looking for inspiration for his church youth groups.

   The police officer and religious education director had no idea that chance experience of “literally just killing time” would be his life-changing moment, one that would lead him from small town life in Bucks County, PA, to The Great While Way.  As it turned out, he was the one who was inspired.  

     Reading through a book about Newton, Smith was fascinated by the story of the British slave trader, the shipwreck, his enslavement, then his religious conversion and new life as an Anglican cleric and outspoken abolitionist.  Smith was so captivated by the story that he had skipped the Forward and hadn’t realized the man he was reading about had penned one of the world’s most beloved hymns, “Amazing Grace.” It was then that Smith felt the beginning of his own conversion experience.

     Although he didn’t have a theatrical background, unless you count the one semester in college when he was a theatre major before switching to history, and despite the fact that he can’t read a single note of music — he had taught himself to play guitar — he felt called to dramatize Newton’s life.

     “‘I thought, ‘This is epic.  Why haven’t I heard of this guy?’” 

     He sought help from his uncle, an attorney specializing in copyright law, to see if anything had been done. This was before the 2006 movie “Amazing Grace.”  Smith learned that in the 230 years since Newton’s death, no one had dramatized his life.

     “I thought, ‘I’ll give it a try.’ I’m always telling the kids ‘don’t limit yourself.  Don’t put yourself in a box and say, ‘this is what I am.’ You’ve got to transcend.’  I’ve got this in my lap.  I thought, ‘I’ve got to take my own medicine.’”  

     That was in 1997.  Next month Amazing Grace will open in a world-premiere run at the 1,800-seat Bank of America Theatre in Chicago before heading to Broadway next year.  Although the 17 years between that first sense of calling to the actual opening night scheduled for Oct. 19 have been hard at times — writing, rewriting, and rewriting some more, putting together readings, auditioning actors and raising the nearly $15 million needed to mount a show on Broadway — Smith, who admits he is not a patient man, sees now that the timing might be just right.

     “The world seems to be taking a turn to the dark end,” he said, adding that the 1700s of Newton’s day were also filled with violence and cruelty.  “There’s bad news all over the world, not just in one place.  Things seem to be spinning out of control. I’m hoping that all the delays that brought Amazing Grace to this point make it shine brighter at a time when people need to be challenged and empowered and uplifted.”

     Smith, who is married and the father of three, is 45 but could pass for 20 years younger.  He shares his story during a lunch break at the New 42nd Street Studios where Amazing Grace is in rehearsal before heading to Chicago.  This is a rarefied world where those making their living through the Broadway stage spend their days.  Rehearsal rooms with floor to ceiling windows overlook 42nd Street, freight-sized elevators ferry loads of chorus girls and boys up and down, and stars roam the halls freely. This week Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, two of Broadway’s hottest headliners, are rehearsing for their next musical.  Bucks County seems far away.

     But Smith is quick to say that without the support he received from Bucks County, he wouldn’t be sitting here.  Back when a musicalization of Newton’s life was still just an idea Smith was toying with, he mentioned it to Rich Timmons, a member of his church to whom he was giving guitar lessons. Timmons, who owned a marketing firm in town, immediately saw potential in telling a story that had gone untold, at least dramatically, for more than 200 years.  “Amazing Grace” also happened to be his favorite song.

     “He said, ‘If you put it in a form I can use, I will take it to every business owner in town’ and he did,” Smith said.

     Timmons raised a half million dollars in three months, and went on to raise another half.  With that money Smith was able to quit his job and devote full time to writing and fundraising.

     By October 2007 he was ready to gage audience reaction.  For the first public concert/reading, he put together a cast headed by Adam Jacobs as Newton and Ali Ewoldt as his love interest, Mary Catlett. Jacobs and Ewoldt were on Broadway at the time playing Marius and Cosette in the revival of Les Misérables.  They spent Monday, Oct. 15, when their show was dark, at Hilltown Baptist Church in Bucks County rehearsing for that evening’s concert, backed by a 60-member choir of area high school students.

     Smith had hung only two posters, each in an area church, announcing the free concert and “word of mouth just exploded around Bucks County.”  On the night of the event more than 1,200 people showed up, requiring Smith to set up two overflow rooms with speakers and screens.

     At the end of the concert, the actors asked the audience to stand and led them in singing “Amazing Grace.”  It was a powerful experience that left many in tears, but for one woman her tears continued even as she greeted cast members in the receiving line. She told Jacobs she hadn’t known about the concert but had been driving by, saw all the excitement at the church and decided to go in.  She had been told by her doctor that morning that she had cancer and had only three weeks to two months to live.

     “What you have said and done here tonight showed me the things I have to get right in my life and the people I need to get right with,” she told Jacobs, who then began to cry as well.

     Hearing that, Smith realized his play could have an impact in a way he hadn’t considered.

     “People were coming and bringing all their pain and struggles,” he said.  “I thought, ‘I have two and a half hours when our paths will cross.’  I wanted to honor that.  My purpose shifted from just wanting to write a good show to wanting to live up to what we can do in people’s lives.”

     Following the Hilltown success, Smith set his eyes on a commercial run, envisioning his show making the rounds on the Christian circuit in cities like Lancaster, PA, and Branson, MO. But then he hired veteran New York producer Carolyn Rossi Copeland and she determined the show should go to the top.  She raised the rest of the money to fully capitalize the venture.  Now all that stands between opening night on Broadway is having the right size theatre become available.

     Copeland put together an experienced team that includes Gabriel Barre as director and Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Gattelli, and brought on Arthur Giron to help shape the show’s book with Smith, who in addition to the book wrote the music and lyrics for the 17 songs, as well as the incidental music.  Three-time Tony winner Eugene Lee creates the sets, which in many cases, such as for the ship and its sinking, will be conceptionalized.  Josh Young plays Newton and Erin Mackey is Catlett, heading a cast of 34.

     Smith developed his script largely from library research because the internet was fairly limited when he started.  While some characters have been consolidated and others invented, the story runs close to Newton’s life and times, he says. Three period consultants have given advice on the manners and gestures of the 1700s, on dialects and provided translation for the African scenes.

     The show “doesn’t pull any punches,” Smith says.  “We’re not afraid to show the depths of the struggle.  We wanted to make sure we never gloss over what slavery was as much as we can onstage.  We couldn’t really portray it because they’d (the audience) be vomiting.”

     But it’s not an “issue musical,” Smith emphasizes.

  “It’s an action/adventure/romance with deep character struggle.  We don’t want to tell the audience what we think they should get out of it.  We want to present the story with honesty and in a forthright way and let the chips fall where they may.”

     The chips have fallen pretty far for Smith.  As the lunch break ends and he heads back into rehearsal, he laughs as he considers the unexpected   — and long — adventure that brought him to that studio.

     “It’s like being on the moon.  I was driving a beat and directing traffic and now I’m walking into the 42nd Street Studios and people know who I am.  It’s surreal.”

(In photo: Fight director David Leong, Christopher Smith, director Gabriel Barre)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice --
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world
determined to do
the only thing you could do --
determined to save
the only life you could save.

-- Mary Oliver