Thursday, February 25, 2010

Yank! A W.W.II Love Story

Yank! A W.W.II Love Story, the York Theatre Company’s new musical that opened last night at the Theatre at St. Peter’s, is sheer delight from start to finish. Created in the style of the unabashedly romantic and exuberant musicals of yesteryear, it offers an involving love story, rousing music and charming songs inspired by the tunes of the 1940s, terrific choreography -- loved that tap and the dream ballet -- and right-on-the-mark acting and singing. I hope it moves to Broadway. It should. In the meantime, I expect many Drama Desk nominations this spring.

The show arouses more than just a sense of nostalgia, though. Yank!, directed by Igor Goldin, is as timely as anything on stage at the moment because the young lovers in this story happen to be two men, serving in an Army in which the current “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy would seem unimaginably broadminded.

Bobby Steggert (left in photo), fresh from his role as Younger Brother in the recent Broadway revival of Ragtime, should expect to be nominated for best actor in a musical for his performance as Stu, a timid midwestern teenager who has been drafted in 1943 and ends up a photographer for Yank magazine. Steggert first played Stu in a 2007 production by the Gallery Players in Brooklyn and was so drawn in by the role that when he signed on for Ragtime he requested a furlough to leave Broadway to do this show Off-Broadway. That request was denied, but when Ragtime closed after a short run he was free after all. His commitment to the role shows. Nothing is between him and his character.

The other cast members inhabit their characters as well. Ivan Hernandez (right) is convincing as Mitch, the man Stu loves. Tall, dark and handsome, his nickname around the barracks is Hollywood. Mitch has a fiancé at home, but responds to Stu’s advances and soon the two men are engaged in a secret love affair.

This angle of forbidden love is found in many musicals; the only slant that makes this different is that the relationship is between two people of the same sex. Around this, a classic musical takes place, with numbers that could have been on stage in a 1940s musical. “Betty” offers the funny standard of love sick soldiers passing around their pictures of movie stars -- Betty Grable is the favorite -- “Your Squad Is Your Squad” is the comic male bonding camaraderie song of military comedies and “Click” is a lively tap dance number worthy of Astaire and Rogers, performed by Stu and Artie (Jeffrey Denham of the original White Christmas cast who is this show’s choreographer). The audience went wild, applauding and cheering. I haven’t been to a musical that garnered this much audience enthusiasm in a long time.

The show is nicely framed by having a contemporary young man, also played by Steggert, intrigued by a World War II soldier’s journal he has bought at a thrift shop. It’s Stu’s journal, and it transports us into his story. At the end, this young man reads the final passage, from May 1963, closing the tale on that long-ago love affair. A moving way to finish.

Nancy Anderson, an actress I’ve loved since I saw her as Mona in A Class Act, is her usual sassily appealing self playing all the female roles. I don’t know why she’s not up there in the big star musical comedy category with the likes of Kristin Chenoweth because that’s where she belongs.

The cast also includes Andrew Durand, Zak Edwards, Todd Faulkner, Denis Lambert, Joseph Medeiros, David Perlman, Christopher Ruth and Tally Sessions.

Yank! has music by Joseph Zellnik, with book and lyrics by David Zellnik, his brother. The set is design by Ray Klausen, costumes by Tricia Barsamian and lighting by Ken Lapham. It was originally presented at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2005.

In a Time Out New York interview, the Zellnik brothers say they had been longing to create a Rodgers and Hammerstein-type show, with all the beauty, simplicity and openhearted emotion of those musicals. “Musicals have developed this ironic pose of making fun of the fact that they are musicals,” Joe said. “And we thought, ‘Is there some way to get back to storytelling, with people singing songs because they feel something keenly and they want to express it in song?’”

He happened to be reading Coming Out Under Fire, Allan Bérube’s history of gays and lesbians who served in the military during World War II. The Zellniks realized they could write a sweet, old-fashioned musical with an historic slant. David then interviewed as many gay veterans as he could find to make the show as historically plausible as possible.

The New York Times had an interesting front page feature on Tuesday about how the theme of gay shows has shifted away from the politically messaged plays of the 1980s and 90s, such as The Norman Heart and Angels in America, to ones that emphasis the love and the personal relationship. Seven such shows will be opening in NYC in the next few weeks.

As I was leaving the theatre I saw Jim Morgan, York’s producing artistic director, in the lobby and told him how much I loved the show. He thanked me and told me to tell my friends. I said, “I will. I’m a critic.” So, my friends, you have been told. Catch this show while you can.

Tickets, currently on sale through March 21, are available by calling (212) 935-5820 or by visiting Performances are at the York Theatre Company's home at The Theatre at Saint Peter's, 54th Street, just east of Lexington Avenue.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"A human being has so many skins inside, covering the depths of the heart. We know so many things, but we don't know ourselves! Why, thirty or forty skins or hides, as thick and hard as an ox's or bear's, cover the soul. Go into your own ground and learn to know yourself there."
-- Meister Eckhart

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Before & After, Carrie Newcomer's latest CD is a blessing

Listening to singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer’s new CD, Before & After, makes me feel younger, much younger. It takes me back to my years of listening to Joan Baez and Mary Travers LPs and the joy and relaxation of folk music. For the last 15 years or so my musical world has consisted almost exclusively of jazz, show and cabaret. This CD, with its deeply spiritual focus, is a welcome change.

Newcomer, a Quaker whose work is inspired by her friendships and collaborations with respected authors, theologians and fellow songwriters, says ”Before & After” is “the most unguarded and naked work I’ve ever done.”  This album is about “paring down...peeling back layers to get to the heart of what really matters." Musically, “it’s about playing the most elegant notes and placing them perfectly.” Spiritually,  it asks the questions “What really sustains us?  In a time of change and transition, where do we find solid ground?” 

In the title track, Newcomer, who refers to her songs as hymns, considers the search for the sacred in the mundane, attempting to capture the moments of transcendence in every day life.  ”We live our lives from then until now,/By the mercies received/or the mark upon our brow./To my heart I’ll collect/what the four winds will scatter,/And frame my life by before and after.”

I’m moved by “Do No Harm” with its biblical dream of turning swords into plows to bring God’s Kingdom to earth, and I especially love “Stones in the River,” a reminder of the importance of being faithful to calling, to “believe in the better world I’ve dreamt,” even though we may never see the flowering of the seeds we plant. “So, today/I’ll drop stones into the river,/and the current/takes them out into forever,/and the truth is/most of us will never know/where our best intentions go,/still I drop another stone.”

Another favorite of mine is “If Not Now,” with its assurance that despite struggles and sorrow, “miracles do happen every shining now and then.” “If not now,/tell me when./ If not now,/tell me when./ We may never see this moment,/or place and time again./ If not now,/if not now./ Tell me when.”

And I appreciate “A Simple Change of Heart,” with its message of hope. “There’s never been a day/when the world wasn’t new./When the sun did not rise or the life break on through . . . there’s always clearer skies stretching out beyond that weather.”

Newcomer’s rich alto is soothing as well as uplifting, as is her guitar playing. She’s joined by an assortment of gifted musicians and vocalists, among them Mary Chapin Carpenter who joins her for the title track. The songs, often poetic, are in the folk tradition, with Appalachian and classical influences.

Exploring spiritual themes in her music throughout her career, Newcomer has been either influenced by or written with such notables as Parker J. Palmer, Phillip Gulley, Jim Wallis, Brian McLaren, Scott Russell Sanders, Barbara Kingsolver and Jill Bolte Taylor.

This is Newcomer’s 12th release on Rounder Records. New Yorkers will have a chance to hear her live on March 28 when she appears at Joe's Pub. For more information, visit

Monday, February 22, 2010

At the New York City Ballet: Liebeslieder Walzer and Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2

By Mary Sheeran

Every once in a while, I need to see ballet, particularly ballets by George Balanchine, and on Friday, Feb. 19, the New York City Ballet presented an All Balanchine Program. I invited Retta to come with me, being pretty sure she’d like it. (I think she did!) The program comprised Liebeslieder Walzer, perhaps Balanchine’s most profound and elegant work, and his Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, one of my favorite of Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky ballets.

Balanchine loved songs. He had a Russian’s passion for melody and, regarding his profound relationships with Stravinsky and Tschaikovsky, he would insist that Tschaikovsky’s music was singable and remind us that Stravinsky’s works were based on song. And much of the music Balanchine choreographed was based on the song form, too: the da capo aria, the cantilena, the ritornella, and simple folk tunes: One of the movements in Divertimento 15 (Mozart) is to a song about a farmer’s wife who lost her cat. Indeed, Balanchine put steps to all sorts of songs and kept all the toes in the house humming. Think of Who Cares (Gershwin), Union Jack (British folk tunes), The Nutcracker (French folk tunes), Le Baiser de la Fee, even Monumentum pro Gesualdo, and Western Symphony (all together now: “From this valley they say you are going…).

In 1960, Balanchine created dances for Johannes Brahms’ two sets of Liebeslieder Walzer (Opus 52 of 1869 and Opus 65 of 1874). Its debut electrified his audiences at City Center, the company’s first home, as they witnessed Balanchine’s love of song joined to his passion for searching, waltzing lovers. He set dances to all 32 of Brahms’ love song waltzes, and they come at us with an astonishing outpouring of inventiveness, emotion, nuance, and romance.

The curtain rises on what is either an elegant ballroom in Brahms’ Vienna or an elegant soiree in a palazzo; those who have gathered in the luxurious, candle- and chandelier-lit parlor appear to be friends and perhaps more. All wear evening clothes of the mid-1800s, the women wearing soft, shimmering satin gowns (designed by the great Karinska) and thin slippers with small heels. Four of them have begun to sing, and a man and woman play the piano (Susan Walters and the wonderful Richard Moredock). After listening for a few moments, the remaining four couples, as also happens in several of Balanchine’s works, turn from listening to dancing. They waltz, simply, and then, oh, gloriously. Moods move swiftly through the dancers’ bodies – from sweetness to flirtation to passion to despair and possibly tragedy -- Balanchine’s ballrooms always have some threat in them. Assisted by Balanchine, we hear that Brahms’ music changes with sudden swiftness as do the steps – as do the feelings of love.

Lovers exchange Intimate whispers. Tender looks evoke strong passion. Men hold their gloved hands before their eyes as they lead their partners, eyes blinded to the faces of their lovers (ah, Orpheus.). The women are lifted, gently, into the air, are embraced and enfolded within their partner’s arms. Couples waltz, slide, plunge across the floor. A man gently touches the shoulders of a woman looking into the darkness who seems to awaken at his touch, and she moves forward into the light, then bends backward into his arms. The women turn and sink back before their lovers, but in the end, it is the men who genuflect before them and kiss their hands.

At the end of the first section, the dancers rush through the room’s three sets of double doors and escape into the moonlight. After a short pause, the ballroom has disappeared and the lighting has deepened in shadow. The singers begin Brahms’ Neues Liebeslieder Walzer, and the dancers return. Now the women are wearing ballet length tulle skirts and toe shoes on their feet. There are more intimate whispers and looks, with every gesture a deeper meaning, a small key opening greater doors of love – or not. We move beyond the social aspects of dance to where it takes our hearts. Men and women enfold each other, twist inside each other’s arms, touch softly, then plunge across the floor. Assisted by their partners, women soar into the air so easily in this love that could bring madness as the music becomes more agitated. But the waltz remains.

The much quoted words of Balanchine are in the program of how “In the first act, it is the real people who are dancing. In the second act, it is their souls.” I like to think that people and souls dance together and that in fact, these two sets of dances are occurring simultaneously in time (for all social dances have a between the lines undercurrent). Certainly in the second part, the dancing becomes freer, deeper, more emotional (but dare I say, not less human). Always, the dancing remains rooted in the waltz and the waltz remains rooted in the song. I could follow both the waltzing and the various pulses beneath that Balanchine could show us along with his staggering inventiveness of the drama of dance and of the heart.

The singers, also human instruments resonating with body and soul at the same time, are indispensible to this piece, and not only because Brahms happened to have his notes set with words, but because it is important in this ballet that the singers face the audience and do not seem to have anything to do with the dancers. The singers are simultaneously in the ballroom as well as in that other realm of the dancers’ souls, but they are also singing to us. (Perhaps the dancers are in the singers’ imaginations?) It isn’t that the words of the songs are what matter as that by watching the dancing, we don’t need to know the words. Yet the impetus in the music is fully, and richly, human – vocal in a deeper, spiritual dimension.

I’ve seen Liebeslieder Walzer many (not enough) times, but Friday’s performance was the first in which I felt a strong connection between the singers and dancers. Usually I’ve thought of the singers over THERE and the dancers over HERE, but on Friday, they all seemed to be in the same place. During one of Darci Kistler’s solos, I had the uncanny feeling that she was doing the singing. Each time she bent back, her deep longing seemed to come from her in the form of the soprano’s voice. This illusion was helped by the soprano, Ashley Emerson, who seemed particularly attuned to the dancing in her. She was facing us, as were all the singers (Katherine Rohrer, mezzo; Michael Slattery, tenor; and Thomas Meglioranza, baritone), but she knew exactly what was going on, perhaps because it was happening to her.

Toward the end of the second set, the dancers leave their realm of shadows and souls as the singers continue with Brahms’ final song. We are again in the ballroom, the candles glowing in the deep shadows of the mature night, and the dancers returning slowly, the women again wearing their satin evening gowns. They return to listen. Have they in fact been doing this all evening, along with us? Was the dancing all in their – and our – imaginations? Were we all transformed just by watching and listening?

As I listened, I recalled what Tamara Geva (a Balanchine dancer and also wife) said: “His dances came out of his dreams. He broke the existing barriers, expanded dancing into new spheres, and his unbelievable imagination made it soar. He showed that movement had no limitation, that it was an endless language.... And it all seemed to come so easily from some secret place within him.”

The waltzers (Darci Kistler, Jared Angle, Jennie Somogyi, Sebastien Marcovici, Janie Taylor, Philip Neal, Wendy Whelan, and Justin Peck) were all excellent. I was particularly struck by how Wendy Whelan has matured into an extraordinarily lyrical dancer while maintaining her unique power. A few years ago, I used to close my eyes when she came on. Now I think that she was able to cross a border Merrill Ashley couldn’t; I am not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing – I’ll have to keep watching. The men were as they ought to be: attentive, hopeful, yearning, and lost, those searching men who so often appear in the Balanchine canon.

They ought to have reversed the order of the program and left us in the wonder of listening and remembering, but I suppose the company wanted to end on the contrasting blaze and power of the Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, which takes place in that great brilliant blue Balanchine sky realm (Arlene Croce called it Balanchine’s Illyria).

This concerto, which Balanchine taught us to hear (hardly anyone played it until he got us to see it), begins with classic courtly dancing. A row of men and women face each other, the men bow, the women open their arms and bow. It’s all a courtly ritual that is a common element in Balanchine’s ballets; the courtliness takes us into a lost world. Indeed, that is the ballet’s connection with Liebeslieder. Tschaikovsky’s music as illustrated by Balanchine seems to pick up the dancers’ bodies and carry them off, ballerinas whirling fiercely and then suddenly arabesquing, pausing, and sweeping off stage. The pianist’s hands and the dancers’ feet move swiftly on sound, air, and energy, defying laws of gravity and speed in treacherous turns, both men and women showing their power in their with-the-music ferocity. The women’s roles in this piece are great ones – strong, demanding, breathtaking.

Well…Friday’s performance was actually not quite there yet. The dancers were a little too earthbound. Teresa Reichlin is a strong dancer, but I could almost hear her lament, Wendy-like, that she couldn’t fly (yet). Kathryn Morgan’s dancing was a tad too lovely and not charged (yet) for this fierce ballet. The corps’ footwork struck me (and amazed me) as being plodding. No, that couldn’t be (could it be?). Perhaps it was the conductor (Andrews Sill), who seemed to be holding something back. Or perhaps it was the pianist, Elaine Chelton’s, lack of definition between the delicate and the exhuberant phrases that distinguish the score’s elegance and complexity. If you dance to show the music and the music is muddy, do you dance muddy?

But there are so many layers in a Balanchine ballet; if one disappoints, you just turn the mental dial. So I listened and watched, rather than watched and listened, and looked for relationships between the corps work in this piece and in, say, Symphony in Three Movements. Balanchine did not consider Tschaikovsky a romantic composer but a modern one, and I tried to see his point but had to take it mostly on trust Friday. I have seen this company charge through this Tschaikovsky ballet like gangbuster poets and have left wondering, what was that exactly? Was what I saw even possible? Friday’s cast was entirely possible and not quite from that Illyria, lady – but perhaps all they need is a little fairy dust. Or the audience getting up and crying out, “Oh, for heaven’s sake, just DO!

On the other hand, I was happy to be shown again how beautiful the second movement is, aided by Stephen Hanna’s sensitive, searching soul, grasping his two lines of women and sending them soaring even as he was left alone. I found myself wondering – had he just come back from a ballroom in Vienna?

Liebeslieder Walzer: Music by Johannes Brahms (Opus 52 and Opus 65). Choreographed by George Balanchine. Scenery by David Mitchell. Costumes by Karinska. Lighting by Mark Stanley (Original lighting by Ronald Bates). Premiere: Nov. 22, 1960, City Center of Music and Drama, New York.

Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2: Music by Peter Ilyitch Tschaikovsky (Piano concerto No. 2 in G Major). Choreography by George Balanchine. Costumes by Gary Lisz. Lighting by Mark Stanley. Premiere: June 25, 1941. American Ballet Caravan, Teatro Municipal, Rio de Janeiro. New York City Ballet Premiere: Oct. 15, 1964.

The New York City Ballet winter season is in its final weeks at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. Remaining programs include an All Robbins evening (Dances at a Gathering, West Side Story Suite on Feb. 23 and 24) and George Balanchine’s full evening of Jewels (Emeralds, Rubies, Diamonds, set to music by Faure, Stravinsky, and Tschaikovsky, respectively, Feb. 25-28). Tickets are available at the theater’s box office and through the company’s Web site,

(Photo by Paul Kolnik)

Singer/writer Mary Sheeran has sung through several operas, cabarets, and song recitals, including several performances of Songs From the Balanchine Repertory. Her novel, Who Have the Power, an exploration of cultural conflict, feminism, and Native American history set on the American frontier, was published in 2006. Her next novel, Quest of the Sleeping Princess, which unfolds during a gala performance of the New York City Ballet, will be published later this year.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

“To live content with small means;
to seek elegance rather than luxury,
and refinement rather than fashion;
to be worthy, not respectable; and
wealthy, not rich; to study hard, think
quietly, talk gently, act frankly . . . to
listen to stars and buds, to babies and
sages, with open heart; await occasions,
hurry never . . . this is my symphony.”
-- William Henry Channing

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Moving Through the Void

By Valerie Hausladen

The void is a place you go into when you’re “in between.”  It could be you’re in between jobs, in between relationships or you’ve just had a child leave home and you’re wondering what to do next. It’s a state of being when you let go of old things and prepare to move into the next level of growth. In the void you leave behind familiar patterns, habits, thoughts and actions. Think of a butterfly in a cocoon. The cocoon is the void. Just as a caterpillar enters the cocoon to be transformed into a butterfly, you go into a void to prepare yourself for your next level of transformation. You are preparing to fly high.

The void is a time when you’re shedding something that no longer fits the person you are becoming. It can be quite uncomfortable unless you learn to accept it as a natural and essential state.  It’s a time of transition and may feel like all of your foundations are falling away, leaving you nothing solid to cling to.  In other words, you know what the “no” is (what you’re leaving), but you don’t yet know what the “yes” is (what you’re moving to). The tough part is that the new is not quite here, but the old has not completely left.

This place of uncertainty, of not knowing—can be disconcerting, especially for those of us to like to plot and plan our life. It may feel like a time of not-doing or emptiness. Yet, it is meant to be a time to stop knowing in your usual way, so that you can begin to learn things in a new way. You may even feel that things are falling apart or that things that used to come easy to you, are no longer working.  This is because you are meant to move on.

The void is a time when you:
• are expanding beyond your old habits and patterns
• learn to think in new ways
• replace things that are no longer working for you, with things that do

The following is an analogy I shared in my book, Professional Destiny

“Imagine Tarzan swinging from vine to vine in the jungle. He can’t move forward on a new vine, without letting go of the vine he was on. If he holds on to the old vine and doesn’t grab the new one, he’ll go backward. If he tries to hold both vines, he’ll get stuck. He must let go of the old vine and grab the new one to ride forward to his destination.”

The void is that exact moment when you let go of the old vine and reach out to grab the new. You leave a place of security to venture into the unknown. The secret is to embrace this transitional time. It’s an opportunity to rest up, recharge and explore an expanded range of choices. Don’t worry if the new direction hasn’t quite shown up yet. Your job is to be open to all of the new possibilities so that you can recognize the best one ahead of you.

Our time in the void can last for hours, days, months or even years.  Since all people go into a void at some point in their lives, and many of us experience it multiple times, how do we make the best of our experience there? Enjoy it! Just like the cocoon is to the butterfly, the void is a natural and essential state for your transition. It’s necessary to experience it to shake up your familiar structure in order to free you to think and act differently. You’ll move through it faster if you don’t resist. Rather than focusing on how uncomfortable you are, accept the unfamiliar and focus on the new opportunities that are open to you. You may not see the end-game at this point, but take the first step and the next steps will come. When you reach the turning point, circumstances will start appearing that are better and more satisfying than what you experienced in the past.

If all else fails, change your vocabulary. Instead of thinking of this time as a “void,” think of it as a “vacation.” You might as well enjoy it, because—like it or not—you’re going to be in it! Embrace it as your time to leave behind the old, prepare for the possibilities ahead of you and emerge fully ready to experience the new.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Every gun that is made,
every warship launched,
every rocket fired signifies,
in the final sense,
a theft from those who hunger and are not fed,
those who are cold and are not clothed.
The world in arms is not spending money
it is spending the sweat of its laborers,
the genius of its scientists,
the hopes of its children.
This is not a way of life at all in any true sense.
Under the clouds of war
it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.

-- Dwight D. Eisenhower

Monday, February 15, 2010

You Can Be Happy (Really!)

Medical science is rediscovering the beneficial effects of a cheerful, positive outlook on physical health. Of course, the Bible has known this all along! The writer of Proverbs found that “A merry heart does good, like medicine” (17:22). Being happy is an important part of being healthy.

The word happiness comes from the same word, “hap,” as happen does. For many people, happiness depends on what happens. But real happiness has a far different basis. It is an inner sense of joy, regardless of circumstances.

Happiness begins outside ourselves, in the God who delights in us and wants us to delight in him. Psalm 1:2 says of the truly happy person, “his delight is in the law of the Lord.” In Psalm 37, we are advised not to fret or worry. Instead, “Trust in the Lord, and do good…Delight thyself also in the Lord, and he shall give you the desires of your heart” (3-4). On the eve of his own crucifixion, Jesus promised, “These things I have spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).

When we find our happiness in God, he grants our deepest desires, and inward joy is matched by outward satisfaction and well-being.

This essay appeared in Guideposts magazine's "Our Prayer" newsletter.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Happy Valentine's Day!

Sending you this beautiful Valentine. The art and song are by Rino Li Causi and the song is sung by his wife, Jan Horvath.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

You have the Kingdom of God within you

The kingdom of God is within you. -- Luke 17:21

When you are filled with self-doubt, and in the grip of your inferiority complex, don’t give up saying, “I can’t do it, I haven’t it in me.” You do have a very big “it” within you. You have the Kingdom of God within you. God has placed in your personality all the ability you need. You have only to believe in yourself, and strength within you will be released. In saying the text, try it this way, “God’s abundance, peace, and power are within me. I lack for nothing.”
-- Dr. Norman Vincent Peale

Monday, February 8, 2010

When I stand before God at the end of my life I would hope that I would have not a single bit of talent left and could say: "I used everything you gave me."
--Erma Bombeck

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Buddhist quote

Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one getting burned.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Johnny Mercer

Today was one of those “this is why I live in New York” experiences. Tuesdays mean another gathering of my lunch group, the Dutch Treat Club, at the National Arts Club. Our membership is made up of people who make their living in the arts, and some are quite high profile. Each week we have a cabaret performance, followed by a speaker. Today’s focus was on Johnny Mercer, one of my favorite songwriters, whose centennial was Nov. 18.

Starting us off were singers Barbara Fasano and her husband, Eric Comstock, who also played piano. Eric shared a quote from Frank Sinatra, a man he admitted wasn’t known as an eloquent speaker, but who got it right with this one: “A Johnny Mercer lyric is all the wit you wish you had and all the love you lost.” They blessed us with a couple of Mercer hits, “I Thought About You” and “This Time the Dream’s on Me” and two non-Mercer numbers, Gershwin’s “Isn’t It a Pity?” and Sondheim’s “Love is Going Around.”

Then our very own Robert Kimball assumed the podium to talk about his new book, The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer. Bob is a musical theatre historian and critic, not to mention a Yale Law School graduate and former member of the Lindsay administration, who has written six previous books about famous lyricists, including ones on Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. He says this one’s his last, and no wonder. What a lot of material! Mercer wrote more than 1,200 lyrics with 230 collaborators before he died of a brain tumor in 1976 at the age of 67. His songs were nominated for 18 Academy Awards and won four of them.

Just hearing about this remarkable life would have been entertainment enough, but we were treated to live performances by our president, the cabaret superstar KT Sullivan. At Bob’s mention of a song, KT launched into a few lyrics from her table nearby. Then, to spice things up, composer Jon Weber leapt to the piano to provide accompaniment and the show really got rolling. Soon we were singing along, wrapping it up with Broadway veteran Tammy Grimes leading us in Moon River, one of my absolute, all-time favorite songs by any writer. If it wasn’t so much fun I probably would have started crying because that song really gets to me “Two drifters, off to see the world. There’s such a lot of world to see. We’re after the same rainbow’s end, waiting round the bend, my huckleberry friend, moon river and me.”

It just doesn’t get much better than that on a cold Tuesday afternoon -- a delicious three-course meal, fabulous entertainment, plenty of wine and good company, in a gorgeous historic mansion in Gramercy Park in the greatest city on the face of the earth. To sing some lyrics Johnny Mercer didn’t write, “I love New York . . .”

Monday, February 1, 2010

Time Stands Still

In his new play, Time Stands Still, Donald Margulies raises some interesting questions about the moral responsibility of journalists, in this case, those covering wars. The play, directed by Daniel Sullivan, is idea-driven rather than plot, of which little exists, or character-driven, since the characters, for the most part, are one dimensional ways of furthering the discussion. Too bad for that last element because the acting is first rate.

Laura Linney is Sarah, a photo journalist with a messianic zeal for her work. If she weren’t in the Middle East snapping pictures of carnage, “who would care,” she asks defensively. “The camera is there to record life. We’re supposed to capture truths.”

She’s also the stereotypical adult child who continues to harbor childhood resentments about her parents. “War was my parents’ house all over again, only on a different scale,” she says.

Even though she has been gravely injured in a roadside bomb attack in Iraq, forcing her to return to New York to recuperate, all she wants is to get back to the action. She has made herself so numbed to other’s suffering that when her longtime live-in lover and fellow war correspondent, James (Brian D’Arcy James, in photo with Linney) suffered a breakdown after witnesses a bombing that killed and injured many people -- their blood and guts splattered into his eyes and mouth -- she chose to stay and work rather than return to New York with him. Only her own nearly fatal injuries bring her back to their Brooklyn loft where the play takes place (set design by John Lee Beatty).

The foils to these two are Richard (Eric Bogosian), Sarah’s editor and former lover, and his considerably younger girlfriend, Mandy (Alicia Silverstone). “There’s young, and there’s embryonic,’” Sarah quips after meeting Mandy, a cheery events planner.

Mandy is the one who finally confronts Sarah and James about their devotion to their work. “There’s so much beauty in the world, but all you see is misery, both of you,” she says.

Later, when Mandy and and Richard have left, Sarah has a momentary questioning of her profession. “We live off the suffering of strangers,” she says to James.

Having spent many years of my life as a hard news reporter, and winning a half dozen awards in the process, I think Sarah’s right about the need for someone to document the suffering. Journalists have their jobs; they’re not supposed to be the relief workers. I’ve never covered a war and never wanted to, but I’ve had someone share her fist at me and threaten me while I was covering a traffic accident, and I’ve had to call parents of a teenage girl who had just been murdered. I do know about intruding into someone’s suffering. While I think accident are over-covered, the journalist has the right to be there because anytime the police are called out, that’s taxpayers money and the circumstance becomes a public matter. In the case of the murdered teen, I was going to be writing about her and needed to give her parents a chance to say something. Many people do want to comment on a loved one. In that case the parents didn’t want to talk, so I expressed my condolences again and hung up. A reporter from a rival paper, The Baltimore Sun, showed up at their door and ended up with an interview. I never regretted not being so intrusive, though. I interviewed her classmates, guidance counselor, priest and the woman who worked with her at her after-school bakery job. By the time I filed my story that night I felt I had known the girl. I knew details like her confirmation name, what she wanted to do after high school, that she sang in the choir at school. I was able to construct a really clear mosaic that was fuller that the Sun’s story. It’s hard to write about people’s pain and misfortune, but it’s a job that needs to be done.

It’s unlikely non-journalists will come away relating to the play as much as I did. My friend Mary, with whom I usually share nearly exact sensibilities, didn’t really care for it. This is probably because the play itself is a bit weak. In spite of all the quarreling -- shouting in the case of Sarah and James -- it lacks any real dramatic tension in that Sarah’s decision about whether to stay in New York and have a family or return to the Middle East is easy to predict.

Time Stands Still is produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club. Tickets, on sale through March 21, can be purchased at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., via and by telephone at (212) 239-6200 or (800) 432-7250 if outside the New York City metro area. For more information on MTC, visit