Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Changing

“When we change, others change too. And circumstances change in a manner that is almost miraculous.”
-- Laura Archera Huxley

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What is left undone

“You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.”
-- Wayne Gretzky

We will be responsible for all the good we didn’t do in this life.
--Voltaire

Monday, December 28, 2009

Divine Joy


Just as the spider unfolds its web from within its own being,
we must unfold divine wisdom, divine joy and the divine potential of God from within ourselves.
The moment we stop trying to make God come to us,
we will realize that God is already here.

Joel S. Goldsmith, A Parenthesis in Eternity: Living the Mystical Life

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Expansion


“The purpose of this life and all of its experiences is not to make ourselves what we think we should be. It is to unfold as what we already are. We are already powerful, divine, wise, loving beings. We are that way because of the spirit of the Divine within us. That spirit is always seeking expression. We are the vehicles of that expression.

“ . . . what expansion is about. Expanding your view of who you are and what you deserve to such a degree that you never find yourself in limiting situations again.

“Comedienne Moms Mabley said it best: ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got.’ We owe it to ourselves to expand our vision of who we are. We owe it to the Divine to expand our sense of what we can do. I now realize there have been many situations in my life in which I have fought to hold onto reasons and excuses for not being where I wanted to be. . . I risked my life, my resources, my need to be right, and the fear of being afraid, and asked God to show me myself as God saw me. . . None of what I am experiencing is what I asked for, and all of it is better than I would have ever dared to ask for. It is called expansion into the Divine.”

from One Day My Soul Just Opened Up by Iyanla Vanzant

Saturday, December 26, 2009

What My Teachers Taught Me, I Try to Teach My Students

A bird in the hand
is not to be desired.
In writing, nothing
is too much trouble.
Culture is nourished, not
by fact, but by myth.
Continually think of those
who were truly great
who in their lives fought
for life, who wore
at their hearts, the fire's
center. Feel the meanings
the words hide. Make routine
a stimulus. Remember
it can cease. Forge
hosannahs from doubt.
Hammer on doors with the heart.
All occasions invite God's
mercies and all times
are his seasons.

-- Sr. Maura Eichner, S.S.N.D

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Promise


This essay by the late Madeleine L'Engle appeared in Guideposts magazine.

A little girl, a piano, a Christmas tree. What could be more ordinary, more normal, more safe? But it wasn't safe that Christmas. It might have been ordinary and normal, because what happened to us happens to many people, but it wasn't safe.

This little girl, our first child, was looking wistfully at the tree, and her usual expression was vital, mischievous, full of life. But that Christmas she was wilted, like a flower left too long without water. She sat with her toy telephone and had long conversations with her lion ("You can never talk while the lion is busy," she would explain). She didn't run when we took her to the park. She was not hungry. I bathed her and felt her body, and there were swollen glands in her groin, her armpits.

We took her to the doctor. He looked over our heads and used big medical words. I stopped him. "What you are saying is that you think she has leukemia, isn't it?" Suddenly he looked us in the eye. When he knew that we knew what he feared, he treated us with compassion and concern. We knew the symptoms because the child of a friend of ours had died of leukemia. We knew.

We took our girl to the hospital for tests, and she was so brave that her gallantry brought tears to my eyes. We went home to our small apartment and sat and told stories. We knew that we would have several days' wait for the test results because of the holidays.

My husband was an actor. I am a writer. Like most artists, we had vivid imaginations. We tried hard not to project into the unknown future, to live right where we were, in a small apartment on Tenth Street in New York City. We loved our apartment, where we slept on a couch in the living room. To get to the bedroom we had to walk through the kitchen and then the bathroom. We were happy. My husband was playing on Broadway. I had had two books published and was working on a third. We had a beautiful child.

And suddenly the foundation rocked beneath us. We understood tragedy and that no one is immune. We remembered a church in New England where, carved in the wood of the lintel, were the words: REMEMBER, NO IS AN ANSWER.

My mother grew up in a world of Bible stories, and I thought of the marvelous story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Those three young men refused to bow down to an idol, and King Nebuchadnezzar was so furious that he ordered them to be thrown into a furnace so hot that the soldiers who threw them in were killed by the heat.

But Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego stood there in the flames, unhurt, and sang a song of praise of all creation.

King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and asked, "Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?" They answered, "True, O King." He replied, "But I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt, and the appearance of the fourth is like the Son of God."

And that, perhaps, is the most astounding part of the whole story. God did not take Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego out of the fiery furnace. God was in the flames with them.

Yes, it is a marvelous story, but I thought, I am not Shadrach, Meshach or Abednego, and the flames burn.

I rocked my child and told her stories and prayed incoherent prayers. We turned on the lights of the Christmas tree, lit a fire in our fireplace, turned out all the other lights, and I managed to sing lullabies without letting my tears flow. When my husband got home we put our daughter to bed, and we held each other. We knew that the promise has never been safety, or that bad things would not happen if we were good and virtuous. The promise is only that God is in it with us, no matter what it is.

Even before the test results came from the hospital our little girl began to revive, to laugh, to wriggle as we sat together on the piano bench to sing carols. Our hearts began to lift as we saw life returning to her, and the tests when they were returned indicated that she had had an infection. It was not leukemia. She was going to be all right.

She is a beautiful woman with children of her own, and she has gone through her own terror when her eldest child was almost killed. I suspect most parents know these times. I know the outcome is not always the one we pray for.

In my own life there have been times when the answer has indeed been no. My husband died, and I will miss him forever. When a car I was in was hit by a truck, I was almost killed. I still wonder by what miracle my life was saved, and for what purpose. Certainly everything became more poignant. Were the autumn leaves that year more radiant than usual? What about the tiny new moon I saw one night? And my family and my friends: Have I ever loved them as much as I love them now?

I think back to that Christmas when my husband and I did not know whether our little girl would live to grow up. Between that Christmas and this there have been many times when I have been in the fiery furnace, but I am beginning to understand who is in there with me. It is then, when I need it, that I am given courage I never knew I could have. Every day is a miracle, and I hope that is something I will never forget.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

May you always find your source


"There is a river that runs beneath the currents of complex everyday; the hustle, the bustle, the "I must do"—the frantic wishing to be saved. There is a river whose waters never run dry—and from that source we drink eternal life; all hope and mercy. We sit by that river—our souls—and connect without words. That is the place from out of which all meaningful, significant gestures are born, be they great compositions, works of art or gentle feeding grains to grateful birds—a cup of cold water, brought with love. There is a place—nameless, invisible. This place holds my attention—fills me with interest, wonder, awe."
~ Danita Geltner

Monday, December 21, 2009

Simon Green Traveling Light


“Simon Green Traveling Light" is so thoroughly entertaining and original it was enough to make a happy non-traveler like me ready to pack her bags and head for the airport. Teaming with the gifted David Shrubsole on piano, Green sings of geographical destinations as well as personal journeys in his latest cabaret act, which opened last night as part of 59E59 Theaters’ Brits Off Broadway series. 

Like other cabaret shows, “Traveling Light” has its selections that touch the heart, as Green does when he sings songs like Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is the Ocean,” but this show also stirs the intellect with writings and poetry from Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, W.H. Auden, J.R.R. Tolkien and others, some of which Green recites and some he sings, thanks to Shrubsole’s inspired musical settings. It’s a special evening.

It also has delicious moments of humor, such as with Green’s performance of “Some Little Bug,” about the likelihood of getting sick while dining in foreign countries. Eat “clams in chowder” and “the angels will singing louder” because they know you’ll be joining them. Eat chili, and “on your breast they’ll place a lilly.” It’s a funny song, and one that was completely new to me.

Green and Shrubsole are wonderful entertainers who know how to put together a show and deliver each song for maximum effect. Aside from his cabaret shows, Green has performed extensively in musicals in London’s West End, including three original productions of Stephen Sondheim’s shows. Shrubsole has an impressive list of credits as an orchestrator/arranger, conductor and composer.

Adding to the sophisticated atmosphere for “Traveling Light,” the theatre space has been transformed into a cabaret, with candles on the tiny tables and drinks available if one desires. I look forward to these shows each year. They’re a nice departure from the usual holiday fare.
  
“Simon Green Traveling Light” continues at 59E59 Theaters, between Madison and Park, through Jan. 3. I strongly encourage you to go.
 
For tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or go to www.ticketcentral.com. For more information, visit www.59e59.org. 

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Little Night Music


I kept wishing someone would send in the clowns. Anything to relieve the boredom of this first Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's 1973 musical A Little Night Music, which is directed by Trevor Nunn and playing at the Walter Kerr Theatre.

The one bright spot, and it is a shining one, is Angela Lansbury’s performance as Madame Armfeldt, an elderly woman whose practical approach to sex -- “a pleasurable means to a measurable end” -- has left her wealthy and satisfied with her life, as she explains so delightfully in the song “Liaisons.”

Unfortunately, the show’s other big star, Catherine Zeta-Jones in her Broadway debut, gives a weak performance as Madame Armfeldt’s glamorous actress daughter, Desirée, who approaches relationships more as momentary flings. Zeta-Jones’s voice is pleasant enough for a chorus, but not for a starring role, and she lacks stage presence in her movement and her timing. (She won an Oscar for the film version of Chicago.)

Unlike many Hollywood actors who decide to try Broadway with little or no theatre experience, Zeta-Jones began her career in musical theatre at 9 appearing in Annie in London and performed during her teen years in choruses in the West End, but it’s been a long time since she was on stage and it shows. It’s especially apparent with her interpretation of what is probably Sondheim’s most famous song, “Send In the Clowns.” In this scene she realizes that her former lover, Fredrik Egerman (Alexander Hanson), who had pined for her for years, has moved on just at the time, in middle-age, when she wants to commit to him. It’s a song of regret about two people who have missed each other -- “me here at last on the ground, you in midair” -- but she sounds so indifferent she might as well be reading a grocery list.

The comic roles do relieve the three-hour-long tediousness, a bit. Ramona Mallory is funny as Anne, Fredrik’s 18-year-old wife of 11 months who is still a virgin, as is Leigh Ann Larkin as Petra, the Egermans’ maid. She does a most commendable job with Sondheim’s wordy challenge of a song, “The Miller’s Son,” about her ideas on sex and finding a mate.

Set in early 20th century Sweden, A Little Night Music is adapted from the 1955 Ingmar Bergman film "Smiles of a Summer Night." This Broadway production is rooted in Nunn's recent acclaimed productions at London's Menier Chocolate Factory and in the West End.

The cast also features Aaron Lazar as Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, Erin Davie as Countess Charlotte Malcolm and Hunter Ryan Herdlicka as Henrik Egerman, with Stephen R. Buntrock, Bradley Dean, Katherine Leigh Doherty, Marissa McGowan, Betsy Morgan, Jayne Paterson, Kevin David Thomas, Keaton Whittaker, Karen Murphy, Erin Stewart and Kevin Vortmann in the ensemble.

David Farley has designed lovely period costumes and a stark set that, along with Hartley T A Kemp’s lighting, conveys the somber, shadowy feeling of a play in which the past haunts most of the adult characters. Jason Carr provides orchestrations and Tom Murray musical direction.

The original production, which featured Glynis Johns as Desiree, Len Cariou as Fredrik and Hermione Gingold as Madame Armfeldt, was directed by Harold Prince and won five 1973 Tony Awards, including the one for Best Musical.

Tickets for the current production are available at the box office, 219 W. 48th St., or through Telecharge -- (212) 239-6200.

For more information, visit nightmusiconbroadway.com.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Race


My friend Trixy and I left the theatre after seeing the world premiere of David Mamet’s newest play, Race, with lots of questions. Unfortunately they weren’t the good kind provoked by a challenging work. They were the “why did?” and “what abouts?” prompted by all the contrivances of the plot, which revolves around the guilt or innocence of a middle-aged white man accused of raping a younger black woman.

Mamet’s play is black and white, literally and figuratively. He paints broad generalizations that basically boil down to two extremes, that all black people hate all white people and that all white people are afraid of and/or feel superior to all black people. Dramatic tension is definitely missing.

As for the accused, Charles Strickland, I didn’t care, what with Richard Thomas’s bland performance. He’s supposed to be a wealthy and famous man, but he has none of the air of confidence that would have engendered. He’s also ill-served by costume designer Tom Broecker with a horribly fitting suit that makes him look more like an accountant or middle manager than an affluent man. He’s a nonentity around which three lawyers have to make a case.

The attorneys, James Spader, David Alan Grier and Kerry Washington (in photo with Spader) are the opposite of bland. They are one dimensional, so angry and cynical as to be unbelievable. They also are never still. Mamet, who directs his own show, has them walking back and forth, up the few steps to the law books and back down again throughout the slightly more than 90-minute running time. In a play that’s all talk, talk, talk, all that walking doesn’t give an illusion of action. It’s just distracting.

And watching them circulation about Santo Loquasto’s set made me concerned about their well-being. Loquasto should be given the sadist of the year award for what must be the most raked stage in town. I haven’t seen one that extreme in years -- decades. When I was at Back Stage I did a story about the dangers of raked stages, based on a report from a chiropractors group. Dancers suffer the most, but even actors in straight plays do harm to their backs just standing and walking on raked stages. I interviewed set designer Tony Walton for that piece and he said he loves to use raked stages because they thrust the action right at the audience. Since Race offers nothing worth thrusting, Loquasto should have given the actors a break with a level floor. Poor Washington gets the worst of it because she has to wear what look like five-inch heels. I hope these actors have daily message therapy built into their contracts because they’re going to need it.

This is the second Mamet play on Broadway this season. Oleanna, about a possible incident of sexual harassment involving a college professor and one of his students, closed recently.

Tickets to Race, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, may be purchased at the box office, 243 W. 47th St., and by calling (212) 239-6200. For more information, visit RaceOnBroadway.com/.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The divine spectacle


I just received a delightful Christmas card from Carlos Martinez, the internationally acclaimed Spanish mime. We met last year when he and his wife, Jenny, were visiting New York. The card is both theatrical and simple. The printed message reads: “Christmas is a divine spectacle. The earth was the stage and the dressing room . . . a stable.” And his handwritten note says: “Dear Retta, May you savour the dressing room of Christmas before you enter the stage of the New Year.”

What a lovely greeting. Thank you, Carlos! I wish you and Jenny all blessings of the season and hope we will see each other again before too long.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Virgin and Child


Several Christmases ago I took Sheriee and Crystal, two 10 year olds from an after-school program in the South Bronx, to see the Neapolitan tree at the Metropolitan Museum. Those children lived in the country’s poorest congressional district and were excited just looking at the front of the building. I think they would have been content playing outside in the fountain, but I corralled them in and led them toward the gallery where the tree was. When they turned the corner and saw it for the first time they gasped and stopped dead, staring in awe.

After a bit Crystal decided to explore the surrounding artworks. She read a label and looked up at me and said, “Virgin and Child?” The room, as usual, was super crowded and I thought, "How do I explain this simply with all these people around?" Before I could say anything, Sheriee piped up and said: “She was made pregnant by the Holy Spirit.” I thought, "Oh, that explains it," but Crystal realized she had heard something about that before. “Oh, yeah, yeah,” she said, before moving on to other works.

Finally she threw up her hands and said, “Virgin and Child again! Did the same person do all these?” No, but it was the same Virgin and Child.

Now each Christmas when I open my cards and once again see an image of Mary and Jesus I say, “Virgin and Child again” and I think of Sheriee and Crystal.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Henny Youngman


"I thought about becoming an atheist, but gave it up. There are no holidays."
-- Henny Youngman

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Be Merry!



“Be Merry!”, the latest offering from Gloriae Dei Cantores, offers the joy associated with the Christmas season as well as the reverence for music that this great choir, whose name, appropriately, means Singers to the Glory of God, always brings to its recordings and performances. The songs vary from simple and powerful to gloriously magnificent. Elizabeth C. Patterson directs.

Several of the 24 selections are new to me, which is itself a treat because the same holiday music is always recorded again and again because it is so beautiful. One of these, the dramatically rendered Renaissance carol “Gaudete” (Latin for “Rejoice”), will really engage your soul. The songs that are familiar are given new twists; I love the jolly handbell version of “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” and the spirited, multilayered harmonizing of others. The spiced-up accompaniment throughout includes the Gabriel V Brass and Extol Handbell Choir, plus fifes, piano, organ, harpsichord, flute, recorder and percussion. A beautiful 24-page booklet allows the listener to sing along and provides background on the songs.

The complete listing is:

What Cheer?
Adam Lay Ybounden
Noel Nouvelet
Down in Yon Forrest
Today the Virgin
Gaudete
Go, Tell It on the Mountain
Patapan
All This Time
Immortal Babe, Who in Thine Own Way
Shepherd’s Pipe Carol
In a Humble Cattle Shed
God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
What Child Is This?
A Boy was Born
My Dancing Day
Joys Seven
Rise Up, Shepherd and Follow
Go, Tell It on the Mountain
The Snow Lay on the Ground
Ah, Bleak and Chill the Wintry Wind
We’ll Dress the House
Caroling, Caroling
Deck the Hall

Listening to Be Merry! is a blessing. It’s quite a big blessing, actually. Add it to your holiday collection.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Andrea Marcovicci


I always love it when Andrea Marcovicci sings for our Tuesday luncheon group at the National Arts Club. I’ve been a huge fan of hers since I was in high school and she was Betsy on the now long-defunct soap “Love is a Many Splendored Thing.”

She performed selections from her current engagement, “Skylark: Marcovicci Sings Mercer,” at the Algonquin Hotel’s Oak Room, a fitting tribute to conclude this year’s centennial celebration of that great songwriter’s birth. Marcovicci spent a year and a half studying his life and work. Her interpretations, along with her striking good looks and sparkling personality, lit up the room. As Variety has said, she is “the epitome of elegance and showbiz savvy.”

In a nod to our afternoon’s speaker who had preceded her, William D. Cohan talking about his best-selling book House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street, she led off with Carolyn Leigh’s “If You’re Young at Heart.” “Fairy tales can come true . . .” was a ironic comment on the greedy visions of the executives responsible for the financial crisis that began with the collapses of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers.

Then she stepped out into the audience to sing “Something’s Gotta Give” and it is was on to Mercer. Andrea also shared anecdotes about the man who collaborated with most of the geniuses of his time. “It was said he would write a song with the first person who showed up in the morning,” she said with a laugh.

She didn’t just sing and tell stories, though. She allowed us to sing along -- as if she could have stopped us -- to “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” and she concluded with a song Mercer didn’t write but which was one with which he had a connection, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The song is forever associated with Judy Garland, who sang it in “Meet Me in St. Louis” and who had a long-running affair with Mercer.

Johnny Mercer is one of my most loved songwriters. If you’ve ever been to Savannah, Mercer’s hometown, you know why he wrote the songs he did. It is a romantic town, in a gothic sort of way, and spawned the man who would go on to win four Academy Awards and receive 18 nominations. My favorite of the winners, and one of my all-time favorite songs, is “Moon River.” I love watching my all-time favorite actress, Audrey Hepburn, sing it in one of my favorite movies, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” sitting in the window beside her fire escape, with gorgeous George Peppard looking down on her. The movie’s producers had wanted to cut the song, which Mercer wrote with Henry Mancini, but Audrey said, “Over my dead body,” and the song stayed in and won the Oscar for best song.

It’s funny how I spotted Andrea Marcovicci and became mesmerized by her as a junior in high school. She was one of only two fictional heroes I’ve ever had, and surprisingly both were television characters. The first was Marlo Thomas as Ann Marie on That Girl. Both Ann and Betsy appealed to the independent little feminist in me. Thomas’s role was historic in that it marked the first time a female TV character had ever lived alone and had a career. Before that women had always been somebody’s wife, mother or daughter. I knew right then that’s what I wanted. I had never been interested in getting married and having children.

Unlike Ann, Betsy didn’t live alone -- she lived with her boyfriend, Joe. I thought, “Oh, I wouldn’t mind that.” Betsy was a social worker, someone with a passion to help people. That also appealed to me, so much so that I started requesting college catalogues with an eye on majoring in social work. I think it’s interesting that the characters I was drawn to at such an early age were both strong, independent career women who were unconventional for their time. I guess that’s how I grew up to be a strong, independent, unconventional career woman myself. Thanks Ann and Betsy!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

So Help Me God!


Kristen Johnston is hilarious as Lily Darnley, a stage diva who thinks the whole world revolves around her, in the Mint Theatre Company production of Maurine Dallas Watkins' comedy So Help Me God!, which opened last night at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.

The character is so over-the-top in her self-involvement that it takes a skilled actress to keep the performance from going over the top. Johnston gets it just right -- from the deep, throaty voice and the grand gestures to the fast-paced dialogue. And she’s a riot when Lily, so in love with herself, passionately kisses her own reflection in the mirror, leaving a mess of her bright red lipstick as a telltale sign of her narcissism.

Mint artistic director Jonathan Bank stages this production of the backstage farce that was written 80 year ago and is just now seeing the light of day on a New York stage. The Mint’s mission is to mount lost, neglected and forgotten plays and they do it beautifully. Any show I’ve ever seen there has been excellent. It’s one theatre, like the Irish Rep, that can always be counted on for quality.

The plot of So Help Me God! revolves around the cast of a new play, Empty Hands, as it makes its way to Broadway in the autumn of 1929. It’s a hoot to watch Lily completely rewrite the play as the hapless playwright, played with delightfully appropriate helplessness by Ned Noyes (facing Johnston in photo), looks on. Lily likes her male costar’s lines better than hers, so she switches dialogue with him during rehearsal. Even when this leaves him announcing that he’s pregnant, she forges on, completely reinventing the characters as she goes along.

When the playwright does actually get some recognition -- his photo in the paper with an announcement of the coming play, Lily is indignant. What does he have to do with it, she wants to know. “Who cares what he looks like,” she says. “There should be a picture of me.”

She has a similar reaction when the young ingenue (Anna Chlumsky), who just happens to be her understudy, is singled out in a review. “All they should say is ‘Miss Darnley is ably supported,’” she says with a dismissive wave of her hand.

This could certainly be said for Johnston, who is ably supported by her cast, especially Chlumsky, who appear naive, but is ambitious enough to want to replace Lily. It is she who gives the play its title. On her knees alone on stage at the first act closer, she prays for Lily to be sidelined, not with anything catastrophic, but with something like the measles or the mumps. “I want to be a star, so help me God,” she pleads.

The lively ensemble also features Brad Bellamy, Catherine Curtin, Amy Fitts, Jeremy Lawrence, Kevin O'Donnell, John G. Preston, Allen Lewis Rickman, Kraig Swartz, Peter Van Wagner, Matthew Waterson, Margot White and John Windsor-Cunningham.

Bill Clarke provides effective backstage sets and Clint Ramos has created fun Roaring Twenties costumes.

My only complaint is that the second act drags. If 10 minutes were cut, bringing the play down to two hours, it would be better. Still, the show is lots of fun, as backstage comedies so often are.

Another interesting show could be made from the life of the playwright herself. Watkins, the only child of a Protestant minister in Indiana, was the author of Chicago, a 1926 play based on her experience as a crime reporter covering sensation murder trials for The Chicago Tribune. That play became the basis for the Kander and Ebb musical, although not in her lifetime -- she turned down Bob Fosse when he tried to get the rights to musicalize it in the 1950s. Those rights were only given after her death, in 1969, by her estate. She had become a born-again Christian and worried that the play might seem to glamorize crime. It had already run successfully on Broadway in 1926, directed by George Abbott, and a silent movie version appeared the next year.

So Help Me God had a rockier journey to the spotlight. Scheduled to open on Broadway in the fall of 1929, the stock market crash, followed by the Great Depression, put an end to that. It was put into a drawer and never even published. Now, 80 years later, it has come to life.

In spite of that setback, Watkins was considered a promising playwright, and then, after she moved from New York to Hollywood, a successful screenwriter. Among the quirky details of her life is her refusal to type even mild curse words into her scripts, leaving it to directors to fill in her “blankety-blanks.” She also didn’t drink or smoke.

Tickets for So Help Me God!, which plays through Dec. 20, are available by phoning (212) 279-4200, by visiting TicketCentral or at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St. For more information, visit MintTheater.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Hildegard of Bingen and the Living Light


This interview I did with actress Linn Maxwell appeared in NCR’s Nov. 27, 2009 issue.

Many actors talk about their work as a calling. Few, if any, feel that call came from someone who died 900 years ago. But Linn Maxwell does. She has no recollection of how she first heard of Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th century German abbess and writer. She only knows she couldn’t say no to her.

“I’m convinced Hildegard stayed on my case,” she says. “I didn’t chose to do it. She chose me.”

With that unlikely prompting, Maxwell has written a one-woman play, “Hildegard of Bingen and the Living Light,” with which she tours. On a sunny November afternoon, when temperatures in New York hit the upper 60s, Maxwell, 65, sat in the garden of the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration and shared her story, how this 21st century woman who has sung opera throughout the Unites States and in 25 foreign countries, appeared in cabarets and other writers’ one-woman plays bonded with the 12th mystic who preached salvation, but also practiced holistic healing and Viriditas, her name for nature’s green life-force that nurtures us.

“I had done two or three one-woman plays that included singing,” Maxwell explained. “It’s the genre I like best. Hildegard wrote close to 75 songs. I felt I could portray her.”

A mezzo soprano who had performed with an early music ensemble, she was familiar with ancient hymns. She began researching Hildegard’s life, which included two visits to Bingen, Germany, where she stayed in the hotel that has been built on the site of Hildegard’s own convent, which was destroyed in the 1600's by the Swedes.  Hildegard, whom many consider to be one of the most important figures of the Middle Ages, had been in charge of the abbey project from the beginning and Maxwell believes she wants to be heard today.  She also read biographies and drew as much of the script as she could from the nearly 400 letters to or from Hildegard that still exist.

“I had to put her words in my mouth,” she says.

What has developed is a 70-minute show in which Maxwell, as Hildegard, shares anecdotes and talks directly to the audience, eliminating the “fourth wall,” that invisible barrier between performer and audience. Clad in a habit made of layers of black chiffon that give it an ethereal illusion, and a lovely bodice of scalloped French woolen white lace, Maxwell lets Hildegard speak.

“I became quite well-known during my lifetime,” she tells the audience, employing wry humor frequently. “Certainly not by being well-behaved or obedient.”

And she explains why she is there.

“I came back to reassure you that the light you are seeking is already in you and it longs to shine forth.”

Maxwell not only sings seven of Hildegard’s songs, she also accompanies herself on two psalteries, the organistrum and Anglo-Saxon and Medieval harps, instruments she learned to play for the show, which she has been developing for close to two years. Before each performance, she prays to be open to God’s promptings.

“I pray that God will use me however he will want and for me to reach whatever needs people in the audience have.”

Erv Raible, the show’s director, said audiences have been quite receptive. “It hits home immediately,” he said, adding that for a woman in her day, Hildegard “had a lot of chutzpah.”

In a review of the play, John Hoglund wrote: “This is one of the most original and historically captivating pieces of art to emerge in many moons from a cabaret-theater artist. It’s opera. It’s theater. Mostly, it’s unique in the truest sense of the word.”

Maxwell has been invited by the International Hildegard Society to perform the show next May at the International Medieval Congress at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

Hildegard’s life has definitely hit home with Maxwell, who was raised in an evangelical home, was an Episcopalian for awhile as an adult and now follows her husband of 20 years in worshipping in the Methodist tradition in Alto, MI, where they live.

“I’ve learned that when God speaks to you, you may not want to be out there, you may not want to go, but you’ve got to go forth,” she says.

Her show makes it clear that Hildegard, in her own quest to do God’s will, became a woman who wasn’t afraid to confront authorities when she felt something was amiss.

“I wrote back to the Pope and told him he should work harder to try to reform the church,” Hildegard tells her listeners, much to the delight of the audience.

In this regard, as well as her concern for the environment and interest in holistic healing with plants, Hildegard has a message that may be even more timely today, Maxwell says.

“That message is so contemporary, with corruption in the church. We know we need to be open to cleaning out the church.”

Asked if she thinks Hildegard would support women’s ordination, Maxwell lets out a heartfelt “Oh!”

“She went on four preaching tours. She was doing it anyway. She would heartily approve.”

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Kristin Chenoweth


Kristin Chenoweth’s “A Lovely Way to Spend Christmas” is a great reflection of who she is as a person and an artist. It showcases her faith, her talent, her sense of fun and her Oklahoma roots.

I love Kristin’s interpretation of “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, which was my favorite carol when I was a child. I have more than 30 recordings of Christmas music and not one features this song, so it’s especially welcome to me. “Do You Hear?” has always captured the wonder and power of the Incarnation, but here, arranged and conducted by Broadway veteran Jonathan Tunick, it becomes more reverent with its echoing and the interweaving of “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” Gently powerful.

Kristin successfully uses the pairing of two songs in another track as she sings “Sleigh Ride” and cabaret artist John Pizzarelli joins her with “Marshmallow World,” once again arranged and conducted by Tunick.

“Silver Bells” is given a new spin, or at least new to me. It has a country slant probably inspired by Kristin’s southern background. Her past also is reflected in “Come On Ring Those Bells,” which is a rousing rockabilly number with a solid Christian message -- “Come on ring those bells/ Light the Christmas tree/ Jesus we remember this your birthday.” I really get a kick out of this one. It makes me feel I’m in a diner in Texas listening to the junk box. Good for Kristin for putting together a Christmas CD full of surprises.


The complete track listing is:

1 I'll Be Home For Christmas
2 Christmas Island
3 The Christmas Waltz
4 Do You Hear What I Hear?
5 Sleigh Ride / Marshmallow World
6 Sing
7 Silver Bells
8 Come On Ring Those Bells
9 What Child Is This?
10 Home On Christmas Day
11 Born On Christmas Day
12 Sleep Well Little Children / What A Wonderful World

This is Kristin’s third CD. I’ve been enjoying the first two -- Let Yourself Go and As I Am. I’m also happy she’ll be back on Broadway soon in Promises, Promises. She was last there in The Apple Tree, which I saw Off-Broadway and on and loved. Before that it was Wicked and a slew of others, including her Tony-winning role as Sally in the revival of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. If you haven’t seen her in any of those shows, you may have caught her on TV in “Pushing Daisies,” “The West Wing” or her own series, “Kristin.” Her movie credits are numerous; right now you can see her in the DVD of “Four Christmases” with Reese Witherspoon. It’s good to experience Kristin in whatever form we can get her.

The CD title, A Lovely Way to Spend Christmas, is appropriate because listening to this CD is just that. Thanks for another good one, Kristin!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Fela!


Bill T. Jones should start writing his Tony acceptance speech for best choreography. Nothing else could come close to his electric dancing in Fela!, the new musical about the life of legendary African composer and performer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, which has transferred to Broadway’s Eugene O'Neill Theatre following an acclaimed Off-Broadway run last fall. Jones also directs, so he might just need a speech for that category as well.

Sahr Ngaujah, who is mesmerizing in the title role, also should start writing a speech, as should scenic and costume designer Marina Draghici and lighting designer Robert Wierzel. This is one of the most exciting shows I’ve ever seen. It’s amazing something so innovative made it to Broadway, a place where safe and standard is more the norm.

The entire cast, which must be one of the hardest working casts in Broadway history, should win a Tony. This is one high-energy show. A program note warns audience members that if they have to leave their seats during the show, to look both ways so they won’t collide with a chorus member dancing down the aisles.

It is absolutely thrilling to watch Jones’ dancing begin slowly and rhythmically and build to a fevered, pulsating climax of movement around the stage and into the audience. I was tired when I went into the theatre but was mega-charged when I left. The two hours and 20 minutes fly by.

I had never heard of Fela, whose pioneering Afrobeat music and political activism made him a legend in his homeland of Lagos, Nigeria, and around the world. His music, a blend of jazz, funk and African rhythm and harmonies, is soul-stirring, and his lyrics, which attacked the repressive and corrupt military dictatorships that ruled his country in the late 1970s, are provocative. Ngaujah is so convincing I felt I was watching the real Fela, who died in 1997 at 58 of complications from AIDS. Because the role is so physically and vocally demanding, Kevin Mambo alternates in the role three times a week to Ngaujah’s five.

Fela’s story unfolds as he holds his final concert at the Shrine, the nightclub in Lagos which is at the center of his career. It’s the summer of 1978, six months after his mother, an outspoken feminist, has been killed by the military police. The authenticity of the location is enhanced by the Brooklyn-based Afrobeat orchestra Antibalas and other members of the New York City Afrobeat community, under the direction of Aaron Johnson, which perform Fela's music live onstage. It is further authenticated by the warm lighting and strings of green, blue, yellow and red lights strung around the theatre, making the whole space really feel like a club, especially with the band playing on stage before the show. The audience enters Fela’s world immediately.

While Fela recalls his career at the club, he also remembers -- and recounts in chilling detail -- the harassment and torture from the military police who try to stifle all dissent. He was arrested, beaten and imprisoned numerous times for speaking out against injustice. In one disturbing scene, the police burn down the compound where he lives with his many wives -- his “queens” -- and musicians, hauling the people off the be tortured.

In addition to the extraordinary Ngaujah, the principal cast also features a majestic Lillias White as Fela's mother, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, and Saycon Sengbloh as Sandra, one of his love interests.

Completing the company -- these people deserve to be mentioned! -- are Corey Baker, Hettie Barnhill, Nicole Chantal DeWeever, Lauren Deveaux, Elasea Douglas, Rujeko Dumbutshena, Catherine Foster, Talu Green, Shaneeka Harrell, Chanon Judson, Abena Koomson, Ismael Kouyate, Gelan Lambert, Farai M. Malianga, Shakira Marshall, Afi McClendon, Adesola Osakalumi, Jeffrey Page, Daniel Soto, Jill M. Vallery, J.L. Williams, Iris Wilson and Aimee Graham Wodobode.

Fela! features a book by Jones and Jim Lewis; they use Fela's own music, with Lewis creating additional lyrics.

Tickets are available at the box office, 230 W. 49th St., and through Telecharge.com or (212) 239-6200. For more information, visit www.FelaonBroadway.com.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A celebration of Finian's Rainbow


I was enchanted yesterday to have a little Finian’s Rainbow with my lunch at the National Arts Club. David Richenthal, a producer of the current hit Broadway revival, and Kate Baldwin, who shines as Sharon McLonergan, were welcome guests to our Dutch Treat Club weekly luncheon.

Lynn Lane, widow of Finian’s composer Burton Lane, opened the program by introducing Richenthal, who then shared how he came to be part of this classic musical, which premiered on Broadway in 1947 and is enjoying a hit revival at the St. James Theatre.

Richenthal was first offered the chance to produce the show back in 1996 when he received a call from Burton Lane, whom he had never met, asking if they could talk. “I was a bit awed,” Richenthal said.

Lane told him he was unhappy with the plans for a revival of Finian’s that would have it playing in a 3,500-seat house, which conflicted with Lane’s vision of “something more suitable to the intimacy of this score,” Richenthal said.

The composer wanted Richenthal to take over as producer. Much as he would have liked to, Richenthal declined, saying it wouldn’t be right to take the show away from another producer. The show subsequently closed quickly out of town.

But Richenthal had told Lane that if the show ever got to New York, nothing would please him more than to produce it. Lane died shortly after that, but Richenthal has now honored Lane’s wishes by producing this first Broadway revival.

Besides speaking fondly of Lane, Richenthal also praised lyricist Yip Harburg as being the driving force behind the show Finian’s Rainbow was to become.

“The principle that motivated him was his abhorrence of racial segregation,” Richenthal said.

At the time of the show’s creation, in the mid-1940s, an anti-lynching bill was before Congress. Southern lawmakers opposed it.

“That was the atmosphere that gave rise to Finian’s Rainbow,” Richenthal said. “Yip had an ideal of illuminating how awful this bigotry was.”

So he created the racist southern Senator Rawkins who is turned into a black man as a way of forcing him to see life from the other side. But once he had that story line, Harburg thought it would be “a bit grim for a musical,” Richenthal said, so he put the work away for a year until he could “take it to the next step by marrying literary devices.”

Harburg discovered a book called The Crock of Gold about leprechauns whose pot of gold, which has the power to grant three wishes, is stolen. And as you know, this fit quite nicely into the story, giving it the playful spin it now has in connection with the antiracism theme.

And as for the great music, Richenthal explained how the winning song “How Are Things in Glocca Morra” came about. The name comes from two German words meaning lucky tomorrow.

“It’s the most important song because it introduces the heroine,” Richenthal said Harburg had felt. “He knew it should be a song that makes you cry.”

And that it can do, especially sung by Baldwin (the photo is a production shot from the musical) who, interestingly, had been an understudy in that ill-fated revival from the mid-90s. She sang it for us, as well as “Look To The Rainbow.” Hearing her in that intimate setting was a joy. I had loved her in the show and on her CD, Let’s See What Happens, and was so glad to experience her up close to see how down-to-earth and sincerely she is. I was glad to have the chance to tell her how much I loved her show and CD, and how much I enjoyed the studio cast recording of the 1926 musical Kitty’s Kisses on which she is featured. When I mentioned that, her face lit up even more and she gave me a hearty thanks and a two thumbs up.

What a sweetheart. I’d love to have her sing for us one year at Broadway Blessing. She’d be a natural. Keep your fingers crossed -- and stay tuned!

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Starry Messenger


A shaggy-haired student (Kieran Culkin) announces to his astronomy teacher (Matthew Broderick) that “overall I find your presentation very dry.” That’s exactly how I felt about Kenneth Lonergan's The Starry Messenger, which is having its world premiere by The New Group on Theatre Row.

I have learned over and over again through the years to avoid New Group productions, but I went to this one because my friend Merwin Goldsmith is in it. And I stayed for the whole, dull three hours because I wanted to go backstage afterwards to say hi to him. Friendship would be the only reason to sit through -- or star in -- this show, which is directed by Lonergan, (who went to school with Broderick) and also stars J. Smith Cameron, (wife of the playwright), Catalina Sandino Moreno (in photo with Broderick), Stephanie Cannon, Grant Shaud and Missy Yager. (Merwin replaced the previously announced Jonathan Hadary.)

As my friend Carolyn so rightly pointed out as we were riding home in a taxi, it’s a bad idea to make a boring person the main character of a play. Broderick is an astronomy teacher, Mark Williams, who shows no sign of spark in his teaching at the old Hayden Planetarium (just before it is torn down), in his marriage or even in his affair with a nursing student (Moreno). The playwright has said the idea sprang from a course he and Broderick took at the planetarium when they were in high school. He says he wrote the play specifically for Broderick, which makes me think of the saying, with friends like that . . .

Merwin plays an elderly hospitalized cancer patient who at the start seems on his deathbed but by the end appears read to go out dancing. I would say that’s not a hospital, that’s Lourdes! His daughter visits, and their relationship also takes major turns, going from strained to loving and back to strained. I have no idea what they have to do with the rest of the story, but at least they weren’t boring.

What spark the play does have comes from its set designer, Derek McLane, with the light shows he creates as part of the planetarium scenes and the lovely night skyline of Central Park above the set. He also does a nice job of establishing the four different location -- the classroom at the planetarium, Mark’s living room, his lover’s living room and the hospital. They remain set up across the stage, with the action shifting from place to place through the movement of the actors and Jason Lyons’s lighting.

For me, my reward was getting to talk to Merwin after the show. We met in 2001 when I interviewed him for the Ritual chapter of my book Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors. It has been a blessing to know him.

The Starry Messenger is scheduled to play through Dec. 12 on Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St. (between 9th & 10th Ave.). Tickets are available by calling (212) 279-4200. For more information, visit TheNewGroup.org.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Kitty's Kisses


Lovers of old musicals will be thrilled with Kitty’s Kisses, a studio cast, world premiere recording of the 1926 Broadway musical, the latest in PS Classics’ forgotten musicals series. The jolly Roaring 20s score by Con Conrad (music) and Gus Kahn (lyrics) is sung by some of Broadway's finest, including the sublime Kate Baldwin, the It Girl of the moment thanks to her winning performance in the Broadway revival of Finian’s Rainbow and her sensational CD, Let’s See What Happens.

The recording, conducted by Sam Davis, also features Andréa Burns, Danny Burstein, Philip Chaffin, Victoria Clark, Christopher Fitzgerald, Malcolm Gets, Rebecca Luker, Jim Stanek and Sally Wilfert.

The songs are ballads and lively dance tunes -- think Charleston! -- and can be a bit corny, but they’re so cute I don’t mind. I particularly like “Choo Choo Love,” the train porter’s take on the romances he observes. “Goo-goo eyes, choo choo lies. Maybe he has a she. Maybe she has a he. What’s the difference? That’s choo choo love.” The love songs are sweet -- “Kitty’s Kisses” and “I’m in Love” are jaunty and pleasantly old-fashioned.

The plot sounds like perfect musical comedy farce, with a hotel full of guests, relationships pining, popping and fizzing, and lots of dancing. And, of course, a happy ending as the two who were always meant to be together finally connect.

Kitty’s Kisses received strong reviews and ran for 170 performances in the summer of 1926. That seems like a short run to us in this era of mega-musicals that play for a decade or more and tour extensively, but back then it was normal. The 1925-26 season saw 46 musicals on the Great White Way. Shows came and went and, for the most part, were lost to history. How commendable it is, then, that PS Classics has brought one of them back to life, at least to disk. And who knows what will come of it? The delightful whimsy of this recording proves that Kitty’s Kisses would be a fun musical to stage -- I can imagine the York Theatre doing a great job with it -- or to be given a go by City Center’s Encore! series of staged musical concerts.

As for Kate Baldwin, I’m looking forward to hearing her sing for my luncheon group, the Dutch Treat Club, on Tuesday at the National Arts Club. I love her voice, and I’m glad I’ll be able to tell her that in person.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Wisdom from actors


Cyndi Ingle, creator of the wonderful LinkedIn group and web site Soul’s Code, asked me to write about what I learned from interviewing Liam Neeson, Vanessa Williams, Kristin Chenoweth, Dudu Fisher, Edward Herrmann, Phylicia Rashad and all the others I spoke to for my book Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors. I learned a great deal and you can read about it at http://www.soulscode.com/how-celebrities-became-my-spiritual-teachers/.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Nightingale


I was deeply moved by Lynn Redgrave's new play, Nightingale, a solo show she wrote in homage to her maternal grandmother, Beatrice Kempson, a woman she barely knew, but one the actress felt needed to come out of the shadows and be given a voice.

For 90 minutes, with no intermission, Redgrave sits behind a little writing desk, script in front of her for occasional prompting, and creates a life for a woman who seems to have been dwarfed by those around her -- her older sisters, her husband, her successful daughter. Redgrave makes her a person in her own right, alternately telling her own story of an unhappy marriage, finding love in middle-age and fighting breast cancer. (It is because of the side effects of recent treatment that Redgrave sits at the desk and keeps the script for referral. This does not in any way detract from the performance.)

Redgrave is a wonderful storyteller, as anyone who saw Shakespeare for My Father -- the play she wrote about her lonely childhood and difficult relationship with her father, the actor Sir Michael Redgrave -- knows. Now, in Nightingale, she and her grandmother, who was called Beanie, share their lives as they never did in real life.

It was the cancer and the breakup of her long marriage that sent Redgrave on an exploratory mission to seek solace. She visited her grandmother’s grave and found her name had been washed away. Because she knew so little about her grandmother, Redgrave decided to imagine a life for her, using basic facts as the structure.

Beanie's had been an arranged marriage to a man she barely knew, and Redgrave allows her to voice her disappointment. “Marriage seemed like such an exciting idea until it happened,” she says in the voice she uses for Beanie. She parallels her own story of marrying a man she hardly knew -- they decided to marry having dated for only three weeks.

She imagines the indignity and horror the marriage bed would have been for her Victorian grandmother, then alternately admits she had known little about sex and that her marriage had been unfulfilling in that regard.

One scene that particularly touched me was when the mature Beanie went with her husband to see their daughter, Rachel, perform on the London stage. After the show they went backstage to see her and were told that “Lady Redgrave” would be with them shortly. Beanie is indignant that her daughter, whom she had always treated coldly, would keep them waiting, and her own sense of inadequacy is apparent. “So strange to hear her called that,” she says. “To remember that little pinched face, the little sticky hands clinging to my dress. Now a lady. A married woman. A star.”

Joseph Hardy directs this reflective show, which is produced by Manhattan Theatre Club. It's billed as a play "about a promising woman stymied by society and all but erased by history, a touching personal tribute and a resounding song for all those people whose voices we've lost, or never known." I love that sentiment.

Redgrave is a special woman, as I learned when I met her in September. She was our speaker at Broadway Blessing, the interfaith service I founded and produce. She talked of how her faith had helped her through her cancer diagnosis (she is now Stage IV) and treatment. I was glad to be able to go backstage after Nightingale to give her a hug and tell her once again that I’m praying for her everyday. She was gracious and welcoming, a beautiful woman in every sense. Please keep her in your prayers.

Tickets for Nightingale are available at the New York City Center box office, 131 W. 55th St., CityTix at (212) 581-1212 and www.nycitycenter.org. The show is currently scheduled through Dec. 13. For more information, visit www.ManhattanTheatreClub.com.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Zero Hour


I knew nothing about Zero Mostel before seeing this show, but Jim Brochu brings that theatre legend to life so vividly that by the time the play was over, I felt I had known Mostel personally for years. And that he was right there with us. That’s how convincing Brochu’s performance and appearance are in Zero Hour, which opened last night in the Theatre at St. Clement’s.

Piper Laurie directs this one-man biographical play, which was written by Brochu. Set in 1977 in Mostel’s painting studio (he was an artist as well as an actor), the play unfolds under the device of having Mostel tell his life’s story to a New York Times reporter who has come to interview him.

Brochu, with a white beard, full arched black eyebrows and ample girth, looks amazingly like Mostel. He sits at a table painting, recounting his larger-than-life story, moving to the side for intense flashbacks.

At first I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through an hour and 50 minutes. Mostel’s nonstop one liners grow tiresome quickly, but I wanted to hear what he had to say about blacklisting, that nightmare time that left him out of work and his dear friend, Phil Loeb, dead of suicide. “He died of a sickness called the blacklist,” Mostel says with fury.

“Why were they targeting actors,” he asks rhetorically. “Did they think we were giving acting tips to the enemy?”

In his mind it was anti-Semitism, pure and simple, an “intellectual firing squad” by those who equated communist with liberal and liberal with Jew. “It’s hard for you to imagine the climate of fear we lived in then.”

For 10 years he couldn’t work as a comedian, so he painted. “They can’t stop creativity itself,” he declares.

The greatest target of his wrath is Jerome Robbins, the Broadway director and choreographer who named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Interestingly, though, Robbins ended up having a positive effect in Mostel’s life once Mostel was able to resume his career after the decade away from show business. He was starring in the musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which was bombing on the road. In Philadelphia, “The audience sat there like we were doing Death of a Salesman.”

The show was rewritten, but still wasn’t working when it moved to Washington. So producer Hal Prince and director George Abbott asked Mostel if they could bring in Robbins to fix the show. Mostel described the three as “Hear No Evil, See No Evil and Evil,” but he agreed and Robbins saved the show, which became a hit on Broadway.

This experience was repeated again when Mostel was starring as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. The show was on its way to being a flop until Robbins was brought in. “The little weasel, he’s a genius,” Mostel had to admit.

These and other showbiz stories make Zero Hour fascinating, but we also learn about Mostel’s childhood on the Lower East Side with his immigrant parents, Orthodox Jews who disowned him for life after he married a Catholic Rockette, and the chilling account of how he almost lost his leg when an M-86 crosstown bus skidded out of control on a snowy night, slamming into him as he was getting out of a taxi, crushing his left leg. He remembered the whole experience, seeing the bus head toward him and the horrified faces of the passengers when they realized what was about to happen. Then the sounds of metal crashing and bones breaking, and the blood everywhere. Amazingly, through 15 operations over six months, his doctors were able to saving his leg. And the bus driver visited him in the hospital, bringing ice cream, and the two became friends.

The play takes us only to the day in July of 1977 when Mostel is giving his final interview before leaving for the pre-Broadway tryout of The Merchant in Philadelphia, and doesn’t go into what followed, that Mostel only played one performance as Shylock before his unexpected death at the age of 62.

In his lifetime, Mostel won Tonys for his performances in Fiddler on the Roof, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Rhinoceros.  His film credits include “The Front,” “Rhinoceros,” “The Hot Rock,” “The Great Bank Robbery,” “The Producers,” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

This extraordinary life is well captured by Brochu, with help from Josh Iacovelli’s nice set of the artist’s studio and Jason Arnold’s lighting, which shifts the time between Mostel’s present with the interviewer and his past. Zero Hour captivated me, who knew nothing of Mostel’s life, and it also charmed someone who did know him. I had been happy to see Frances Sternhagen, the esteemed actress and two-time Tony winner (and two-time Broadway Blessing participant), sitting behind me. We had a nice chat during intermission, but talked of other things rather than this play. As we were leaving, though, her companion said to her, “Was that the Zero you knew?” And she answered ardently, “Yes. Oh, yes, definitely.”

Zero Hour will continue at the Theatre at Saint Clement’s, 423 W. 46th St. (between Ninth & Tenth Ave.)  through Jan. 31.
For tickets, call (212) 239-6200 or visit telecharge.com.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


"I did it, didn't I? Through muck and mud."
-- Mary Lou Williams

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Accepting change


"Initiate the heart to change for it is wiser so,

accepting the splendor of the hour

white with clematis or snow.

"Fortify the will with peace:

no season taking root, tranquil in mist, in warmth, in frost,

each bears fruit."

-- from "Initiate the Heart," Sr. Maura Eichner’s first volume of poetry, published in 1946.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ragtime: The Musical


Seeing the original Ragtime a decade ago was such a memorable experience that I kept re-seeing it last night during the greatly scaled-down Broadway revival at the Neil Simon Theatre. This new one is just fine, with its delightful characters from E.L. Doctorow’s epic 1975 novel and the thrilling Tony-winning score by Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music). But oh, how I missed the elaborate staging of the first, which quite rightly won the Tony Award for best musical in 1998.

I’m definitely a Ragtime fan. I read the novel during the summer of 1976, saw the movie when it came out, have the soundtrack album to that movie and loved the music from the Broadway version so much I went out the next day and bought the cast recording. I have listened to it so much over the years that I probably could prompt any actor on any song -- and then some since the original score has been trimmed a bit. So, of course, I’m happy to have Ragtime back on Broadway. It’s an excellent production and should be nominated for best revival of a musical (although Finian’s Rainbow is my choice for that award).

Like the novel, the musical, which is directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, starts with three families of different wealth and status -- the wealthy WASPS from “the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle,” the blacks from Harlem with their “strange new music” (ragtime) and the immigrants with their dreams of a better life in America. By the end the separations break down as the different lives merge, old ways fade and new expressions point to the future. Historic characters like Harry Houdini (Jonathan Hammond), J.P. Morgan (Michael X. Martin), Henry Ford (Aaron Galligan-Stierle), Booker T. Washington (Eric Jordan Young), Emma Goldman (Donna Migliaccio) and Evelyn Nesbit (Savannah Wise) are woven in and out of the sweeping personal tale, which begins in 1906. (The musical’s book won a Tony Award for Terrence McNally.)

Even pared down, the revival still clocks in at two hours and 45 minutes, but the show is so involving the time flies. The characters, brought to life by a 40-actor cast, are the story, and so many of the songs are spectacular that they don’t need scenery around them.

Christiane Noll plays Mother, and like all of the WASP family members except the young son, Edgar (Christopher Cox), she has no name. Quentin Earl Darrington is Coalhouse Walker Jr., the up and coming ragtime musician, and Stephanie Umoh is Sarah, the love of his life and the mother of his child. (Both in photo.) Robert Petkoff is Tateh, the Jewish immigrant widower who arrives from Latvia with his young daughter (Sarah Rosenthal) and achieves great success as a movie director, having invented the process of moving pictures.

The skeletal, tiered set is by Derek McLane and the lush costumes are courtesy of Santo Loquasto. Donald Holder’s lighting sets all the right tones. James Moore leads the 28-piece orchestra.

This production of Ragtime first had a successful run at the Kennedy Center this past spring year. Tickets are available for the Broadway run by calling Ticketmaster at (212) 307-4100, visiting www.ticketmaster.com or at the Neil Simon box office, 250 W. 52nd St.

A lottery ticket program is also available. Two hours before each performance, people may enter the lottery drawing at the theatre for a limited number of $26.50 tickets to that day's performance. Names will be drawn 90 minutes before curtain time. Two-ticket limit per person; cash only. Winners must be present with valid identification at the time of the drawing.

For more information visit www.ragtimebroadway.com.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Remembering Sr. Maura


I lost a dear friend Sunday night. Sr. Maura Eichner had been one of my English teachers at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, but over the years she became so much more.

I met Sr. Maura in the spring of 1976 when I took her Five Modern Dramatists course and she introduced me to Ibsen, Strindberg, Pirandello, Beckett and Pinter. We both loved theatre, and so our first bond was established. Over the school years we shared other playwrights -- Shakespeare, Shaw, O’Casey, O’Neill -- and we talked about the wonderful plays we saw at Baltimore’s CenterStage.

After I graduated, I continued to visit; I loved climbing the stairs to her tiny, sunlit office at the top of the English department. She always seemed glad to see me, coming from behind her desk to sit in a chair opposite me so we could talk friend-to-friend, not teacher-to-student as in the old days.

When her lack of physical stamina made it necessary for her to retire, our visits became even more intimate as we sat in the cozy living room of the suite she shared with other sisters. I cherished those times most of all. That big room with its unpretentious furniture was so comfortable and inviting, and Sr. Maura was like a mother welcoming me home. My own mother was not warm and nurturing. A severe childhood trauma had left her incapable of loving and caring for me the way a child needs to be loved and cared for, so all my life I’ve looked for mothers. I found one in Sr. Maura. I would give anything to sit with her again in that living room.

I’m blessed that what I shared with Sr. Maura had a specialness that was just for us. Many, many former students loved Sr. Maura and she loved them too, but we shared her history. She grew up at 528 E. 84th Street in New York, in one of those old-time brown railroad flat buildings, a few of which are still on the block. Hers, though, was incorporated many years ago into what is now my building, so I live on the very spot where Sr. Maura grew up. I hadn’t known this until I told her my new address. She was thrilled, and told me to look hard for traces of chalk on the sidewalk from her hopscotch games and to listen for the sound of her jump rope hitting the pavement.

I used to keep her informed about the neighborhood now, and for years sent her the bulletin from St. Ignatius Church, a place she held close in her heart. She loved to go there with one of the uncles who raised her. Her mother had died less than a year after she was born and her father remarried and took her sister, Marie, who was a year older, to live with his new wife and sent Sr. Maura, then called Catherine, to live with an unmarried aunt, two unmarried uncles and her grandfather on 84th Street. Sr. Maura told me once this arrangement was because her stepmother didn’t want her because she was such “a terrible little thing,” but how could she have been? She was just a little girl who wanted her mother and needed her father’s love. I’m sure it’s that pain and loneliness that shaped her into the nurturing woman she became.

She shared other memories of her childhood with me, and even wrote a couple of essays for our block association newsletter about what this part of Yorkville had been like in her day. She remembered a Miss Peacock who supervised the games in the park across the street (Carl Schurz), and she remembered concerts by Goldman's Band in the evening. I don’t think we have the equivalent of a Miss Peacock, but we have a cheery modern playground filled with children, mothers and nannies, and we still have concerts in the park on summer evenings.

Another from the cast of characters from Sr. Maura’s childhood that I like to think about is Joe, who ran the ice and coal shop on the corner. She wrote about that time, about 1925, for our newsletter, how Joe would deliver the ice, but it was her responsibility to keep the drainage tray at the bottom of the icebox emptied. Joe’s store is long gone, his profession made obsolete as refrigerators replaced iceboxes, and a luxury high-rise now sits on the spot. Sometimes as I walk by, I say a prayer for Joe and think I may be the only one alive praying for this man who died so long ago. I’m sure he would smile at that, and would enjoy knowing that a 21st century woman was imagining his little shop, keeping a bit of that world alive, thanks to Sr. Maura.

“Looking back,” she wrote for our Fall 1995 newsletter, “it seems to me to have been an urban Our Town. Everything happened here: the pain and joy of growth and change, the dailyness of life, birth, love, death, the season’s wheel. Even when I take off my rose-colored glasses, I look at the scene in my mind’s eye and I am grateful to have been part of it.”

Sr. Maura and I didn’t just share the neighborhood where we lived, though. We also for a time shared a workplace neighborhood and a job. Before my first book sold and I was desperate for money, I took a job as a secretary and worked on Fifth Avenue at 56th Street. When I told Sr. Maura, she smiled and said her first job had been as a secretary on Fifth Avenue at 57th Street. It was for a philanthropic organization that helped poor women learn to care for themselves when they were pregnant and also trained midwives in the South. “I learned more there about pregnancy and childbirth than I could have anywhere else,” she told me. Her boss was Hattie Hempsmeyer, another name that survives the years. Sr. Maura really cared for Hattie and the other women, but after a year she told them she was leaving to become a nun. They were upset and tried to talk her out of it, saying she had her whole life ahead of her and that she would be wasting it. She did leave, of course, but she was never able to let the women know how happy she was. In those days, the young novices and nuns could only correspond with immediate family at Christmas and Easter, so she was unable to write to Hattie and the others to let them know how blessed her life had become. I thought as I looked at her that day in 1995, telling me yet another wonderful story from her life, that it was such a shame those well-meaning women couldn’t see her then and know her as I knew her, so alive with her love for God, her fellow sisters, her students, literature and life at the College. She told me she had just celebrated her birthday and that she knew there wouldn’t be many more but she didn’t mind because her life had been so rich. I remember thinking she looked positively radiant, and I wondered how Hattie’s life had turned out.

I also wish those women could have known that Sr. Maura didn’t just “waste” her life as a School Sister of Notre Dame, she also had a professional life as a distinguished writer. Over the years, she published more than 350 poems in literary magazines, journals and newspapers including America, The New York Times, Yale Review and Commonweal. Many of her poems were collected in eight books of poetry including “Initiate the Heart” (1946), “The Word is Love” (1958); “Walking on Water” (1972), “What We Women Know” (1980) and “Hope is a Blind Bard” (1989). Her work was also recorded for the poetry collections of Lamont Library at Harvard and for the Library of Congress.

She received numerous awards for distinguished teaching including the Teacher of Year Award from the Maryland Council of Teachers of English in 1982; Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1985; and Theodore Hesburgh Award for Contributions to Higher Education from the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities in 1985.

And she helped others to become writers. Like Hattie, she became a midwife of sorts in her 50 years of teaching literature and creative writing at Notre Dame. Her students won many awards in national writing contests sponsored by The Atlantic Monthly, Lyric and other magazines. In the 21 years of Atlantic’s student-writing contests, Sister Maura’s students won an astonishing 297 awards, including nine first-place honors. Although I followed a different genre -- journalism was and is my great love -- I too won awards, six reporting awards, five of which were for first place. In her poem “What My Teachers Taught Me, I Try to Teach My Students,” Sr. Maura wrote that “in writing, nothing is too much trouble.”

I still have a great many of the letters Sr. Maura wrote to me over the years. I used to love to open my mailbox and see an envelope with that elegant, thin handwriting. I’m sad there will be no more, but I’m happy now for Sr. Maura. Dementia had already taken her from us mentally. Now, at 94, I like to think she has finally met her mother. I will just miss her so much as mine.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The importance of living in the moment


A Sermon for Pentecost XXIV (B-RCL)
The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine
15 November 2009
The Rev. Canon Thomas P. Miller


Lord, teach us to number our days, so that we may apply our hearts to wisdom, Gloria Patri.

Every time I mail a letter or pay a bill, I am reminded of how confident and irrepressible we Americans can be. I am referring, of course, to that little patch of postage called the Forever Stamp, which is supposed to be good and hold its value for ever, no matter how much the postal rates increase. In fact, it’s marketed as a prudent purchase. And as postal rates increase over time, the Forever Stamp may even be a shrewd long-term investment.

Just think about it. Theoretically you could pass down forever stamps to your grandchildren and they to their children and sometime in a hundred years or so, when the cost of a stamp has reached astronomical levels, your heirs could make a killing on a future Forever Stamp exchange on Wall Street. The Forever Stamp could prove to be a gold mine down the road. Nevertheless, in the short term, the concept is not without peril. I can just imagine the faces of my next of kin when the lawyer reads my will in which I’ve left each of them 50,000 Forever Stamps.

Now, as a minister of the Gospel, I am not unfamiliar with the notion of forever, or its theological cousin, eternity. We usually think in terms of eternal life. The letter to the Hebrews talks about the eternal priesthood of Christ, and in the psalms we ascribe to the Lord honor and glory for ever and ever, amen. These are rather big and heady concepts, so I get a perverse little kick out of affixing my Forever Stamp with its eternal value onto the envelope that contains my check to Time Warner Cable.

The trouble with forever is that it tempts us to forget about today. And the irony is, it’s today when we encounter the forever of God. It’s here and now that the God of forever acts in our lives and in the life of the world. It might be said that, on one hand, nothing is forever, and yet forever is always at hand.

Consider today’s Gospel story. Jesus and his disciples are coming out of the great temple, which seems to the disciples to be just about as permanent, or forever, as anything on earth could be. “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings,” the astonished disciples cry out to Jesus, as if to say, “Here is something built to last.” And Jesus, with an eye to history and a rather more developed sense of forever, replies, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

From our perspective two thousand years later, we can verify that Jesus was right. The temple that so astonished his friends was dismantled and destroyed within 40 years – and then for the second time in history. And we know what happened to Rome, then the capital city of the occupying power, unparalleled in monumental architectural bravura, now in our time a romantic vestige of lost imperial splendor.

The disciples, of course, consider the destruction of the temple to be a disaster, nothing short of the end of the world. Already looking ahead and speculating about something so cataclysmic, so apocalyptic, it is natural for them to ask, “When, when will this terrible thing happen and what will be the sign of the end?”

To which Jesus, with his feet on the ground and his eyes wide open, offers not a terrifying prediction – though this passage is often interpreted as a warning – but rather a fair description of how life always is: war, the upheaval of nations, earthquakes, famines. In any case, the end that they fear is perhaps not that unfamiliar. And curiously enough, as the disciples are asking about the end, Jesus tells them that this is just the beginning. These conditions of life on the planet are birth pangs in which the kingdom of God is continually arising from the world as we know it in all its threatening complexity and danger. All is passing away, even as God continues to renew creation.

Things are passing away, but that doesn’t make them unimportant or unworthy of out attention now. The times in which we live are passing away, but our times are the ground on which we encounter God. Jesus was born into this world, not another. Our lives may be passing away, but every moment is precious as a gift from God, and every mortal breath we take is a conversation with the divine. And that may be the key to this business of forever: we can know forever in every moment of time.

And seeing God among us is something of the essence of our faith in Jesus Christ, who was born into the human family in this world; who was acquainted with sorrow and knows what human suffering is, and what death can do. The revelation of God in Jesus Christ, who joined heaven to earth and earth to heaven, is confirmation that God works in and through history. We can encounter God even now. And, in fact, here and now is the only means we have to enter into that fullness of life with God, which is truly forever.

T. S. Eliot expressed this sublimely in the “Four Quartets:”

A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

And in that moment, God arises, for Eliot and for all of us who live our particular pattern of timeless moments.

I find the idea of a Forever Stamp at best naive, and at worse more than a little delusional. I mean, there is no guarantee that the United States Postal Service is going to survive rapid changes in communication and information technology. And though I might be branded a party-pooper by super-patriots, it is reasonable, given the history of the world, that even the United States will at some point in history, even thousands of years down the road, cease to exist or even be remembered, along with whatever remnant of the Post Office might still exist. So, the idea of this little stamp of mine keeping its value forever is just silly. I’m not even remotely tempted to think this little patch of petroleum by-product is going to endure forever.

But that doesn’t really matter at all. We are here now. This is our time, our only time, and what a time it is! History is now, and God is now. As it was in the beginning is now, and the present moment is all we know, or need to know, about forever. And so, to bring Eliot back to mind, while the light shines on an autumn morning, in a not-so-secluded Cathedral, history is now and New York, and God is now, only and always now.

With that in mind, you may want to pay particular attention to the second verse of the Offertory hymn we will sing in just a few minutes:

Mortal pride and earthly glory
Sword and crown betray our trust
Thou with care and toil we build them
Tower and temple fall to dust
But God’s power
Hour by Hour
Is my temple and my tower.

Amen.