Wednesday, December 30, 2009


“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.

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


“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 For more information, visit 

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, DesirĂ©e, 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

Thursday, December 17, 2009


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

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
Go, Tell It on the Mountain
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


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 or (212) 239-6200. For more information, visit

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!