Saturday, July 31, 2010

"I think all great innovations are built on rejections."
-- Louise Nevelson

Friday, July 30, 2010

It was a tough year, but I made it !!!

But not everyone is as lucky as I am......

The economy is so bad that I got a pre-declined credit card in the mail.

I ordered a burger at McDonald's, and the kid behind the counter asked,  "Can you afford fries with that?"

CEO's are now playing miniature golf.

If the bank returns your check marked  "Insufficient Funds," you have to call them and ask if they mean you or them .

Hot Wheels and Matchbox stocks are trading higher than GM.

McDonald's is selling the 1/4  'ouncer'.

Parents in  Beverly Hills and Malibu are firing their nannies and learning their children's names.

A truckload of Americans was caught sneaking into Mexico .

Dick Cheney took his stockbroker hunting.

Motel Six won't leave the light on anymore.

The Mafia is laying off judges.

BP Oil laid off 25 Congressmen.

Congress says they are looking into the Bernard Madoff scandal.  Oh Great!!   The guy who made $50 Billion disappear is being investigated by the people who made $1.5 Trillion disappear!

And, finally...
I was so depressed last night thinking about the economy, wars, jobs, my savings, Social Security, retirement funds, and our bleak future, that I called the Suicide Lifeline and was connected to a call center in Pakistan .   When I told them I was suicidal, they got all excited, and asked if I could drive a truck.

This was sent to me by my friend Dudley Stone. I love it!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The country in your pocket

I took a train trip across the country and back last night, visiting 24 cities and covering 9,000 miles. And I did it in under an hour thanks to the masterful storytelling of Jack Finnegan who wrote, directed and performed City Love Song. He’ll take this one-man show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s largest cultural extravaganza, next month.

Gems like this pass through New York each July on their way to Scotland, taking up residence at 59E59 Theaters as part of its East to Edinburgh series. Their gift is their simplicity and originality.

Finnegan, 32, in jeans and orange T-shirt, is alone on stage with nothing but a stool and his energy and natural animation. We begin our journey with him at Penn Station in New York and head north to Boston as he brings to life the people on the train and the world outside. We enjoy a stroll through the cobblestone streets and a rest in the Boston Commons before boarding the train again to pass through the small towns of the Rust Belt, with their tiny brick train stations and people going about their business unaware; we head to Detroit and Chicago. We have a beer at a working class bar in Fargo, see a sign on a train stop in the prairie reading “Station open midnight to 5 a.m.” That’s when trains pass through this part of the world, so far from the point of departure in the city that never sleeps.

Next: the Dakotas, Montana, the country rolls by, one place at a time. As he says, “You can never see what might be coming in a train, only what’s right in front of you.” Just what’s right outside Finnegan’s window.

The beauty of the Pacific northwest: “Puget Sound teaches patience. Let it,” he says. “Reading a book would constitute a crime.” But after a bit, “there comes a time you wonder if it will ever end.”

Finally we “slide into Seattle,” which seems to be his favor spot on the journey. “Something about Seattle raised my cheer. Everywhere I turned people were smiling.” Even the panhandlers as he walked through the city. “Seattle always left me with a reason to smile.”

Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, onward through the drab miles of scrub and bush in west Texas. Finnegan offers humorous accounts of trying to navigate around Austin, dogging cars because of the scarcity of sidewalks, resorting to walking in a drainage ditch because he preferred to hoof it rather than take a taxi.

“Nobody walks in Texas unless they’re walking to their cars.”

Roll on through the Bible Belt, get dropped off at a station outside Charlotte at 1 a.m. to curl up on a bench and wait for the connecting train to D.C. due to arrive at 7. Tired but changed, we arrive back in NYC after 13 weeks of travel, “with the country in your pocket.”

As vast as was the physical space Finnegan covered, I felt an unexpected intimacy with the people and places we had visited, a feeling of being a community rather than one big country. And I did feel I had visited; I left the theatre with the joy of having had a really good time. Finnegan has a journalist’s gift for observation. He put it to good use creating this show after his creative writing nonfiction graduate study plans fell through. With a notebook full of observations and reflections, which he didn’t think would constitute a book, and his acting background and an undergraduate degree in philosophy, he created this enchanting performance piece.

I’m sorry last night was the final of three performances in New York. I would like you to have seen it. Visit Finnegan’s site,, to learn his plans after Edinburgh.

The seventh annual East To Edinburgh festival takes place through Sunday at 59E59 Theaters (between Park and Madison Avenues). Created as a way to help shows get on their feet before flying off to Scotland, the festival simulates the same production constraints shows experience during the Edinburgh Festival, while giving them a space to fine-tune their productions.

Ticket prices range from $10 to $20 ($7 - $15.50 for 59E59 Members) and may be purchased by calling Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or online 

So much talent!

I had a great time at the Episcopal Actors' Guild's open mic night on Monday. Lots of terrific singers, strong poetry readings and, as always with Guild people, fun partying. Ronnie Giles, one top-notch showman, snapped this photo of my friend Mary Sheeran singing "With Every Breath."

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it."
-- Edith Wharton

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Wise Man of Nyokodo

Actor friend Casey Groves will present a staged reading of his play The Wise Man of Nyokodo, a Japanese-style Noh play in English, to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki.
The play is a testament to the transforming power of sharing our stories, and based on an imagined meeting in Nagasaki Cathedral between the famous Catholic peace activist, Dr. Takashi Nagai, and the pilot of the Bock’s car, Charles Sweeney, years after the dropping of the bomb.
The reading will be accompanied by the Japanese music ensemble Wafoo and followed by a brief discussion of the play and issues around the bombing. It is sponsored by NY Peace Film Festival and Interborough Repertory Theater (IRT)

Written and directed by Casey (in photo with Episcopal Actors' Guild executive director Karen Lehman), the reading will be 7 p.m. Aug. 7 and 8 at Interborough Repertory Theater, 154 Christopher St., 3rd floor, buzzer 3B.

For reservations and information call (917) 969-8698.

(Photo by Lauren Yarger.)

Friday, July 23, 2010

Freud's Last Session

How refreshing to hear a challenging debate between two equal opponents who treat each other with respect and wrap it up in about 75 minutes. Even better when that debate is about the existence of God and put forth during an imagined meeting between C.S. Lewis (Mark H. Dold, left in photo) and Sigmund Freud (Martin Rayner). Mark St. Germain’s new two-character play, Freud's Last Session, which opened last night at the Marjorie S. Deane Theater Little Theater, is a worthy exploration of faith by two great thinkers of the 20th century.

A discussion of religion could really bomb theatrically without the right ingredients. Director Tyler Marchant has been blessed with St. Germain’s excellent script and two first-rate actors. Not to mention Brian Prather’s outstanding set, Freud’s book- and artifact-filled London study, with its dark furniture, Victorian lamps, Oriental rugs and, oh, yes, that infamous therapeutic couch.

We don’t know if such a meeting ever took place between the Christian convert Lewis, then a rising star, and the esteemed atheist psychoanalyst Freud, although Harvard professor Armand M. Nicholi Jr., in his best-selling book The Question of God, mentioned that a young Oxford professor visited Freud at the start of World War II after Freud had settled in London to escape the Nazis. St. Germain’s creative speculation that it could have been Lewis makes for dramatic and witty entertainment.

Set on Sept. 3, 1939, the day England entered the war against Germany, Freud, dying of oral cancer, would have been 83 and Lewis 41. (Freud died of doctor-assisted suicide less than three weeks later.) The two men interrupt their discussions frequently to listen to BBC reports on Hitler’s aggression in Poland, which certainly give credence to Freud’s claim that the notion of a loving God is “an insidious lie.” But Lewis holds his own, and even turns the psychiatric table on Freud. Pointing to the assortment of figurines on the doctor’s desk, Lewis asks, “What do you call a man whose desk is dominated by gods and goddesses?” Freud’s quickly replies, “A collector.”

It is that kind of fast-paced exchange and St. Germain’s balanced theological arguments that keep the play from falling into preachiness or dogmatism. While I agree with Lewis and choose to believe in God, Freud’s points make sense to me. I also find it hard to explain away pain and suffering as something we just don’t understand. Any questioning person wants to know where God is in that.
Freud's Last Session had its world premiere last June at Massachusetts’s Barrington Stage Company, where it was extended twice and brought back by popular demand for two subsequent encore engagements.  It holds the record as the longest-running play in Barrington Stage’s history.

The Off-Broadway premiere is at the Little Theater, 10 W. 64th St. For tickets, call 212-352-3101. For more information, visit

Thursday, July 22, 2010

John Tartaglia's ImaginOcean

I’ve been enjoying the newly recorded cast album of John Tartaglia's ImaginOcean. I saw this charming show in May after it was nominated for a Unique Theatrical Experience Drama Desk Award. Now I’m reliving it, as well as lifting my spirits with the cheery tunes.

ImaginOcean is a children’s show that you don’t have to be a child to enjoy. The same goes for the CD. William Wade’s songs (music and lyrics) are the stuff of any good musical. “Which Way to Turn” is about facing a dilemma and believing you can win -- “Keep your eye on the ball and you’ll make the right call.” “Just a Stone’s Throw Away” is a reminder that challenges have their purpose -- “Steady as I go, this is just a chance to grow.” And “The Treasure” points to what is really important in life -- “Whether you’re young or old, whether you're shy or bold, you’ll find your friends are your greatest treasure of all.” Finally, what’s a good musical without a go-to song that you come out singing? That’s “On Our Way,” the song that launches the three little fish friends on their journey. I’ve been singing it as motivation to get through some challenges of my own.

  The CD features Tony and Emmy Award nominee Tartaglia, who created and wrote the undersea family musical adventure that opened March 31 at New World Stages.  Tartaglia, a “Sesame Street” alumnus who portrayed Rod./Princeton in the original cast of Avenue Q, is the voice of ImaginOcean's fish friends Dorsel and Tank, as well as Leonard, the lovable octopus.
  The lively music is performed by a 14-piece orchestra and an ensemble of singers.  In addition to Tartaglia, vocal performances include ImaginOcean director Donna Drake, as the voice of Bubbles, the female fish of the trio, and ImaginOcean producer and veteran Broadway musical performer Michael Shawn Lewis, who lends his voice as Ripple, the tiny but mighty sea horse. The CD contains all the songs in the original production plus two bonus tracks, a dance remix of "Jellyfish Jive" -- which certainly gets me dancing -- and "The Treasure," performed by a children’s chorus.  
To celebrate the CD’s launch, Tartaglia and the cast of ImaginOcean will perform at my neighborhood Barnes & Noble on 86th and Lex on Wednesday at 7 p.m.  If you want to go, get there early. The events room fills quickly for family offerings.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Cranbrook Sampler

I heard the Christ Church Cranbrook Choir several Sundays ago when they sang at Mass at my church, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and felt I was in the midst of heavenly hosts praising God. It’s not easy to sing in the world’s largest gothic cathedral, with its seven second reverberation, but their voices rang out with majesty and power.

At coffee hour I went up to several choir members to tell them how lifted up I was by their singing and asked if they had recorded any CDs. Luckily they have. Assistant organist Christopher E. Reynolds kindly sent me a copy of their recent release, A Cranbrook Sampler, made up of 14 “anthem favorites” of the Choir members. It in every way lives up to the glory I experienced when they visited us.

My soul is sent soaring by Jennifer DeMello-Johnson’s solo on Mozart’s “Laudate Dominum,” a standout in a recording of exceptionally sung classics. Sacred music doesn’t get any better than that.

I enjoy every selection, though, from the comforting “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” to the rousing “Followers of the Lamb,” the gentle “A Gaelic Blessing” and the great gospel finish with “True Light.” “There is Balm in Gilead” is so beautiful it makes me cry -- and it features another exquisite solo, by Tara Sievers.

I hope the Choir, which is based in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, will come back to sing for us again. In the meantime, I am blessed to have this CD in my collection.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

You are likely to get what you are expecting

My soul, wait thou only upon God; for my expectation is from Him. Psalm 62:5

“One of the most serious and powerful facts in human nature is that you are likely to get what you are basically expecting. Spend years developing the mental attitude of expecting that things are not going to turn out well, and you are likely to get that result. You create a mental condition slanted to an unhappy outcome. If, on the contrary, you develop and maintain a mental attitude of faith and expectancy — hoping, dreaming, believing, praying, working — you will create conditions in which every good thing can and will grow. Fill your mind with the positive power of spiritual expectancy, and God and His good will flow toward you. “
-- Dr. Norman Vincert Peale

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Falling for Eve (And Maybe Falling Asleep)

Falling for Eve had some bright and funny moments, but as a whole lacked enough spark to hold my interest. At only 90 minutes, this retelling of the Adam and Eve story, directed by Larry Raben, felt too long and packed with too many songs -- 16. I don’t know how far along it is in the development process, but it wasn’t up to the usual excellence of the York Theatre Company’s full productions; it seemed more on the level of a staged reading.

Eve (Krystal Joy Brown, in photo right) is by far the most appealing character. (Isn’t she always?) She’s sharper than God/She (Sasha Sloan, center) and God/He (Adam Kantor) and Adam (Jose Llana, left) put together. She bites that apple all right, and pays the consequences in banishment from Eden, but she learns enough about life and herself to realized “Eden is no paradise.”

Unlike in the biblical story, this Adam doesn’t indulge and so spends boring day after day watching the animals play and missing Eve. I couldn’t help but think of the writings of esteemed psychologist Alice Miller and her take on the Genesis account -- what kind of god (parent) wants to keep his children in ignorance? Eve is the only one who realizes knowledge is a good thing.

She also gets to belt out the best songs (music by Bret Simmons and lyrics by David Howard) as she wanders the world. Her “Where Will I Sleep Tonight?” is a soulful cry of anguish, one of the highlights of the evening.

Rounding out the cast are Jennifer Blood and Nehal Joshi as Sarah and Michael, angels who advise Eve and Adam and serve as go-betweens for God. For the most part, their roles provided humor and moved the show along.

The musical’s book was written by Joe DiPietro, who last month won Tonys for best book and best score for his work on Memphis. He includes some wry humor, such as when Sarah tells God he’s “a mess of contradictions” (the real one is too!) and when God tells the grieving Adam he’ll provide him with a replacement for Eve and says this great new person will be called Nicole. “Nicole,” Adams asks skeptically. “That name’s going to be very popular someday,” God assures him.

Unfortunately more of these little nuggets are needed to spice up life in Eden, which has a way of making earth, even with all of its pain and suffering, much more desirable. That’s certainly Eve’s discovery and seemed to be the message of the show, but we need to pass too much time in dullsville Eden to get to this conclusion.

Falling for Eve continues through Aug. 8 at the Theatre at St. Peter’s Church, 54th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues. Tickets are available by calling (212) 935-5820 or by visiting

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Screwtape Letters Onstage Gives the Devil His Due

I interviewed actor Max McLean for NCR and The Living Church. Hope you enjoy my feature.

Something an actor never wants to hear is that an audience member made an association between his performance and hell.

One night about five years ago Max McLean had that very experience. He was performing his one-man play Genesis at the Playwrights Theatre in Madison, N.J., when Jeffrey Fiske, then a theatre professor at Drew University, approached him after a show and said he saw McLean’s potential to be bad — really bad. As in evil. As in one of literature's most chilling villains, Screwtape.

“I didn’t know if that was a compliment or not,” McLean says with a laugh. Wearing khaki shorts, a yellow shirt and sandals, he sits in an empty Off-Broadway theatre before an evening performance of the now critically and financially successful stage adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s classic The Screwtape Letters.

At first he couldn’t see how that epistolary novella, the second Christian work he read (after the New Testament) following his “spiritual revolution” from “marginal agnostic” to conservative Presbyterian when he was in his 20s.

“I never saw it as dramatic literature,” says McLean, now in his mid-50s. “I saw it as devotional material.”

Fiske envisioned the potential, though, and acquired the rights from the Lewis estate. He spent six months grappling with it before McLean joined the effort.

“Lewis writes such long sentences,” McLean said. “All those words don’t help us onstage. The main thing we had to do was thin it out for theatre.”

Six months later they had a draft that was nearly 99 percent Lewis’s words, which was one of their goals, but it was too dense. They tried it in small workshops but it was tough sloughing for McLean.

“I wasn’t up to the words,” said McLean, a seasoned actor of regional theatre and national tours of St. Mark’s Gospel and Genesis. “The words were bigger than me.”

Over the next six months they experimented with light and sound design and narrowed the script from two hours to just under 90 minutes. The key to getting the script right was discovering the narrative arc that makes the story dramatic and which isn’t always apparent in reading and meditating on the 31 letters a few at a time.

It’s a two-sided arc, actually. One shows what happens to the man the devils are trying to tempt — his corruption and then his redemption — and the other follows Screwtape’s command of his world followed by his loss of control.

Their persistence in getting it right paid off.

“We have twice as much content as most shows and we’re half as long,” McLean says. “I feel audiences want to delve into the meatiness of the piece.”

So it would seem. The run at the Westside Theatre has been extended twice, now planned to play into the fall. A national tour is being prepared and McLean has been asked to perform the show in South Korea.

Critics have praised it as well. “One doesn’t have to be a Christian to benefit from or enjoy The Screwtape Letters,” New York Times critic Wilborn Hampton wrote. “Whatever a person’s faith may be, human failings and foibles are pretty much the same the world over.”

Before taking up residence in New York this spring, the production was a hit at Chicago’s Mercury Theatre, where it ran for six months. It was also a success at The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., playing for 10 sold-out weeks. Last fall it embarked on a national tour, filling houses in San Francisco, Phoenix, Houston, Austin, Louisville, Chattanooga, and Ft. Lauderdale.

This is a testament to the script and, of course, the original story of a senior devil, Screwtape, who, through correspondence from hell to earth, instructs his nephew, Wormwood, an inept young devil in training, in the ways to win souls for “Our Father Below.” When first published in 1942, it brought immediate fame to the little-known Oxford don, landing him on the cover of Time.

The show’s success also is a mighty testament to McLean’s characterization of Screwtape.

Strutting around Screwtape’s eerie skull-lined office in hell (devilishly atmospheric scenic design by Cameron Anderson and lighting by Jesse Klug) or pontificating in a rich bass-baritone voice from his big leather armchair, McLean really gives the devil his due. Wearing a red and gold brocade smoking jacket (costume design by Michael Bevins), his thick salt and hair combed back, this Screwtape is a devil in love with himself. As he dictates his letters to his appropriately reptilian servant, Toadpipe, (splendidly performed by Elise Girardin, understudy to Karen Eleanor Wight), Screwtape clearly cherishes his every word and gesture.

“He really is pure pride,” McLean says. “He loves the way he looks, the way he dresses. He’s the smartest guy in the room. He’s good at his job. He has the ability to compromise souls.”

While McLean says he’s having a ball portraying Screwtape — and it shows — Lewis had a different reaction. “Though I had never written anything more easily, I never wrote with less enjoyment,” he wrote. “Though it was easy to twist one’s mind into the diabolical attitude, it was not fun, or not for long. The work into which I had to project myself while I spoke through Screwtape was all dust, grit, thirst, and itch. Every trace of beauty, freshness, and geniality had to be excluded.”

For McLean, creating and performing the work has had a beneficial effect.

“The piece has increased my prayer life,” he says. “It really makes me look at our tendency to pride and arrogance.”

Lewis’s work will continue to hold appeal, McLean says, because of how “plainly and winsomely” he portrays Christianity.

“We want to experience our faith as winsomely as possible and we fail,” he says. “Lewis shows us how. He’s a writer for the half-convinced. He makes it so appealing.”

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Winter's Tale

I walked home floating on air last night after seeing Shakespeare in the Park’s staging of The Winter's Tale at the Delacorte Theater. Director Michael Greif and a cast that is perfect across the board bring to life this story of alienation and reconciliation, destruction and rebirth -- with its healthy dose of romance. This production is three hours of theatre at its best.

The mood for a tall tale to enfold is set right from the start with Mark Wendland’s fire pot and candlelit set, Clint Ramos’ gorgeous costumes and Kenneth Posner’s lighting. Although it was a hot summer night in Central Park, cool breezes swept the theatre as this story meant for a long winter night’s entertainment played out.

Act One is ruled by vengeance and its aftermath. Leontes, King of Sicilia, (Ruben Santiago-Hudson, in photo center) suspects that his good friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia, (Jesse L. Martin, right) is really the father of the baby his wife, Hermione (a commanding Linda Emond, left), is carrying. His rage leads to the death of his son, Prince Mamillius (Alexander Maier), followed by Hermione shortly after she gives birth to Perdita (played as an adult in Act Two by Heather Lind). Leontes decrees that the infant should be abandoned in the wilderness to die alone. Fortunately she is found by an old shepherd (Max Wright) who raises her as his own.

I don’t want to give away the delightful surprises of Act Two, which takes place 16 years later. The ending is one of Shakespeare’s happiest, and it is shimmeringly presented. The effect is magical.

Two other performances that deserve a shout out are Marianne Jean-Baptiste for her powerful portrayal of Paulina, a lady of the court who remains loyal to Hermione, and Antigonus (Gerry Bamman) as her husband. I also loved composer Tom Kitt’s score.

The Winter’s Tale runs in repertory with The Merchant of Venice through Aug. 1. Both are among the best Shakespeare in the Park productions I have ever seen.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Sunday, July 11, 2010

"Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant."
-- Robert Louis Stevenson

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Merchant of Venice

Every now and then I see a performance so real that I know I shall never see another that could even come close. Al Pacino’s incarnation as Shylock in director Daniel Sullivan’s full-bodied staging of The Merchant of Venice is mesmerizing. I can’t imagine anyone else so totally transforming himself into the challenging character of Shakespeare’s unappealing Jewish moneylender. And making him as human as anyone sitting in the audience at the Delacorte Theater.

Pacino sails past the pitfalls of portraying Shylock -- too pathetic or too baffoonish. His “Hath not a Jew eyes . . .” speech achieves the sarcasm and avoids self-pity. As his character unfolds, we see the roots that produce a man willing to claim his pound of flesh, collateral for a loan he has given. Every second Pacino is onstage Shylock is enfleshed. (Now I’ll have to look for Michael Radford's 2004 screen adaptation of Merchant in which Pacino also played Shylock.)

I had only seen this play once before and that was at least three decades ago at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. I didn’t like it then, and actually still don’t. Except in a few places it’s not all that funny -- certainly not like Midsummer and As You Like It -- which is why its original description as a “comicall history” seems more appropriate.

I also didn’t care much about the lovers, Lily Rabe (in photo with Pacino) as Portia and Hamish Linklater as Bassanio and Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Narissa and Jesse L. Martin as Gratiano. (I did enjoy the women’s cross-dressing deceit in the courtroom scene.) But this production is so alive, and so well acted across the board, it will still be one of my iconic Shakespeare in the Park experiences.

I hope to have another Monday night when I return to the Delacorte for The Winter's Tale, which runs in repertory with Merchant through Aug. 1. Although Pacino is only in Merchant, most of the actors appear in for both productions. It is the first time the Public Theater, producer of Shakespeare in the Park, has offered such an arrangement since 1970.

The buzz is that Merchant might transfer to Broadway, but I’ve heard that before with other high-quality Delacorte productions, so you might be waiting in vain if you’re hoping to catch it later. Better to bite the bullet now and wait for the free tickets, given out at 1 p.m. (two per person), or enter the Public's online ticketing lottery at

Friday, July 9, 2010

"Sit and feast on your life."
-- Derek Walcott, "Love After Love"

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Glee hits the high notes

Congratulations to "Glee" for 19 Emmy nominations! Well deserved guys, but don't all those of you with Broadway roots forget where you came from. We want you back some time!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

"Time flies. It's up to you to be the navigator."
-- Robert Orben

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Antidote of the day

The Gentleman Press Agent: Fifty Years in the Theatrical Trenches with Merle Debuskey

Working at Back Stage I met some terrific and talented people. One of them, Robert Simonson, has a new book out called The Gentleman Press Agent: Fifty Years in the Theatrical Trenches with Merle Debuskey. Here’s the scoop:

Broadway’s last great untold story!
Merle Debuskey was a behind-the-scenes wonder in the New York theater scene whose career spanned the 1940s to the 1990s. He was New York theater’s top publicist, handling more Broadway shows than anyone in history, the first spokesman for legendary nonprofits Circle in the Square and Lincoln Center Theater, and Joe Papp’s right-hand man for 30 years. In 1959 when the all-powerful Robert Moses demanded that Joe Papp begin charging audiences for Shakespeare in the Park, it was Merle Debuskey who marshaled public opinion and led the battle to keep it free — over Papp’s own initial objections. He also made sure How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying kept its title, saved Zero Mostel’s life, housed redbaiters’ target John Henry Faulk, manhandled George C. Scott and Mort Saul, and romanced Kim Stanley.

Show after show, star after star, Merle Debuskey was at the heart of the theater scene for half a century, all the while puffing on his pipe, banging away at his manual typewriter, and never seeming to break a sweat. A true New York character and a complete original, Debuskey is now retired, one of the last of a vanishing breed.  

Now, theater historian Robert Simonson uncovers Debuskey’s story for the first time in The Gentleman Press Agent: Fifty Years in the Theatrical Trenches with Merle Debuskey. This biography takes us right into Debuskey’s world, revealing the glitz, talent, glamour, politics, ego, and hard work that drives the theater. With a panoramic sweep that encompasses some of the greatest Broadway personalities of the 20th-century — and in a style as warm and lively as Debuskey himself, The Gentleman Press Agent will be treasured by all theater fans.

Robert Simonson is the author of two collections of theater profiles, Role of a Lifetime and On Broadway, Men Still Wear Hats. Simonson’s writing on theater and the arts has been published in the New York Times, Variety, the New York Post, the Village Voice, Time Out New York, and, where he was the editor from 1999 to 2006.

Be content

I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. Philippians 4: 11

"Your present situation may not be to your liking. Perhaps you are dissatisfied and discouraged. Put the matter in God’s hands. If He wants you elsewhere, He will lead you there, providing you are amenable to His will. But perhaps He wants you where you are. In that case, He will help you to adjust to the situation. He will make you content, even grateful for present opportunities. Learn the great art of doing the best you can, with what you have, where you are. When you do this, you learn how to reach the better condition, or how to make your present situation a better one."
-- Dr. Norman Vincent Peale

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Here's one of my Back Stage friends, Amy Hersh, singing songs from her terrific CD Somebody Else's Bubblegum at the Clearwater Festival on June 19. Way to go, Amy!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Our Other Anthem

This essay by Mary Ann O'Roark appeared in Guideposts magazine.

Assigned to the 20th Infantry unit based in Yaphank, Long Island, Irving Berlin responded to the shock of reveille with "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning!" Then he pestered the camp's commander to let him produce a musical revue called Yip! Yip! Yaphank! For it, he wrote an anthem that pulled out all the patriotic stops. But Berlin, a notorious perfectionist, had second thoughts about the song—he "couldn't imagine soldiers marching to it"—so he filed it away.

And there "God Bless America" might have stayed. But two decades later, as another world war loomed on the horizon, he took the song out of its dusty file, changed a few words, then offered it to Kate Smith for her popular radio show. She sang it on Armistice Day in 1938, and it was an immediate hit.

Of course, it had its critics. Some claimed the piece was not dignified enough. Others felt it was too jingoistic. Berlin was not so much stung by the criticism as perplexed. To him the lyrics didn't mean God's blessing was exclusive to America. "God Bless America" was a song of heartfelt gratitude from a poor Russian Jewish immigrant. It was his prayer that the country that had been so good to him continue to be blessed.

Irving Berlin went on to pen hundreds more songs for Broadway, films and television. But as far as he was concerned, "God Bless America" was the most important song that he had ever written. His daughter, Mary Ellin Barrett, can still recall him singing it at a Boy Scout rally with a conviction that no celebrity could ever match, not even the mighty vibrato of Kate Smith. "He meant every word of it," she says.

It was Berlin's wish that others benefit from his labor of love. In 1940 he set up the "God Bless America Fund" to ensure that all the song's royalties would go to America's youth, primarily the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. Over $7 million have been collected—and donated. America put a song in the immigrant composer's heart—and he gratefully gave it back.

Irving Berlin died in 1989 at the age of 101. But the song that he had once put away in a drawer continued to live on and to inspire. In the days after September 11, as our nation grieved and prayed, we also sang. One evening I joined a group of New Yorkers gathered before the fountains at Lincoln Center. Some held candles, some clutched flags. In the dusk, strangers linked arms just as we'd done when I was a Girl Scout. As lights flickered in the fountains mist and fighter planes patrolled above, we sang Irving Berlin's national anthem, "God Bless America." There could be no more fitting prayer for our home sweet home.

Let’s Face the Music and Dance: NYCB Wraps Up Its Spring Season With Two More New Ballets and Some Old Friends


When New York City Ballet announced its “Architecture of Dance” series for its 2010 Spring season, informing us that architect Santiago Calatrava would provide the scenery for the seven new ballets (and five new commissioned scores) of the season, I sensed trouble. Ballet is about human bodies in space becoming metaphors for our lives with the collaboration of choreography, music, and scenery, and all I heard on the PR end was scenery, architecture, and Calatrava. And perhaps I’m dense, but I didn’t get the concept. “Architecture AND Dance,” perhaps? I told my suspicions to be quiet, that everything would be all right.

Not all of the new ballets used Calatrava’s designs (I missed Barak’s and Wheeldon’s works), but for those that did, his inventions proved fun to watch and often beautiful. I could understand Peter Martins’ fascination with designs that lived and breathed, but I don’t know if they helped the ballets to live and breathe or even occupied the same universe (with the possible exception of Luce Nascosta).

On the whole, the new scores were wonderful. Richly colored with orchestral effects and instrumentation, often both dramatic and lyrical, and vigorously played by the NYCB orchestra, I found myself wondering whether I liked the ballets (and I liked a few) because of their scores. I fear, looking back, that was mostly the case, as most of the dancing was to the music and not inside it, but why ask for the moon?

Wait! Why shouldn’t I ask for the moon from a ballet company that claims to be about music all the time? Or is that just press agentry? Maybe so. Balanchine knew music intimately; is it a crime that these guys don’t? Liking music and dancing to it, and dancing with and inside the music, are not the same. What we ended up with are ballets danced by good dancers to new scores with interesting scene design but no coherent idea that unifies the works individually or as a group except for some vague idea about the “architecture of dance.” It seems to be the Martins approach: toss a lot of ingredients into the pot and maybe something will come of it.

The series often felt more like the “architecture of loneliness and alienation.” The ballets I saw emphasized feelings of loss and confusion, and they often took place in dark universes with dancers disguised by strange headgear or lighting that denied their individuality. And why didn’t all of the new ballets use Calatrava’s work?

Because Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins was hogging them for his ballet, Mirage. That’s why.

During Martins’ piece, the last of the new ballets to be presented, the circular steel structure kept changing shapes with its rods moving as if they were plucked strings, which I enjoyed watching. I also enjoyed watching that structure morph from two soft round semi-circles (incorporated into the not too distinguished but okay costumes), to a maw biting the edges of the floor, to a circle, to a bird with wings spread, which then dipped down to become two canopies over the dancers that went from black and white to colors at the very end – pink, blue, yellow, and purple. I wasn’t sure if I should be offended, as in the colorization of a black and white classic, or delighted, as if I’d just discovered how to see in color. It was just one more thing tossed into the pot.

The effect of this design on Martins’ choreography, however, was interesting. Martins tends to focus on steps as if that’s all you need to do (hence, his “new combinations” misunderstanding of Balanchine), and the scenery is sort of there: He does not focus on the big picture although he likes his ballets to look nice, and they do. There are exceptions, especially in his early works, but Martins’ ballets are usually class exercises against nice scenery that seem indifferent to the presence of an audience.

Well, in Mirage, all of the above gets turned inside out. Because Martins concentrated on the scenery from the start, the big picture apparently was a major focus – ah, but at the expense of the steps. The piece becomes a collection of partnerships – Martins’ expertise – but you’d never know it because there’s nothing there’s nothing that’s interesting happening on the floor that’s as interesting as what’s happening in the air, ie, Calatrava’s work and the music.

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s rich and satisfying Violin Concerto, which he conducted, with the fabulous soloist Leila Josefowicz, is a mysterious and lyrical piece, rich and inventive. The ballet wasn’t, though it was well danced. I should call attention to lovely work by Jennie Somogyi and Jared Angle, who were real and in the air. The piece began with two vigorous men, stretching, emphasizing and exaggerating line, line, line. Two couples came to do the same. The partnering was eloquent but then became repetitious and a little simple, which I do not expect from Martins, who can be incredibly inventive. Melody brought out stretched limbs and penche├ęs. When the music drew on the percussion section, the dancers made sharper, quicker moves. I started predicting how the dancers would move – correctly. As the violin increased its tension and the drums reigned steadily, the violin soared lyrically over them all, but the dancing could not match the music’s tension or its passion. I found I was listening to the music and watching the set evolve – I could never predict that. Perhaps the dancing, monotonous after the first half but completely inoffensive, was the mirage. Thanks to Calatrava and Salonen, Mirage looks better than it deserves to; although it says little about the dance or its architecture. I’m not sure it was supposed to.

I have somewhat better news about Balanchine’s Prodigal Son, also on the program (June 23). The ballet, one of Balanchine’s earliest (1929), has two athletic and dramatic roles, the Prodigal Son (Daniel Ulbricht) and the Siren (Teresa Reichlen). Ulbricht played the Prodigal more arrogantly than young and impetuous, and he was strong, albeit not dramatically overpowering. But Reichlen, to put it metaphorically, found the headdress too big for. She does the steps but oh, forgive her, for she doesn’t know what she is doing. Every step the Siren does must be deliberate and threatening. Reichlen just does what she’s told. When she wrapped her cape around her legs, well, that’s what she did, without sensuality or strangeness. This ballet is the story of the power of two capes: the Siren’s and the Father’s. Both must be used eloquently.

Still, nothing can diminish the power of this story as the Prodigal Son crawls to his father (Ask LaCour) who lifts him up and enfolds him in his cape. The libretto by Boris Kochno ignores the older brother and the fatted calf, both essential elements of Jesus’ parable, but why quibble about Jesus? This finale is one of the most moving moments in all of ballet repertory. If only they could find someone to play the Siren.

Luce Nascosta (Unseen Light) by Mauro Bigonzetti and a commissioned score by Bruno Moretti was an interesting piece (I saw this June 19), combining ballet with modern dialects, ferociously danced. The piece had a ritualistic ambience—mysterious with a hauntingly beautiful score -- and / we / could see the light, a golden orange sun? moon? that divided into smaller circles and then became one again. In this exotic land, the men were lyrical, while the women were aggressive – fast flying legs and toe shoes proved effective weapons. And yet, once again, I felt this ballet pointed toward loneliness. This piece seemed to be Part 2 of Millipied’s Why Am I Not Where You Are, but with more interesting costumes and movement. Or perhaps it was a neighbor of Namouna’s country. Some poo-pooed the sliding toward partners; to me it looked like fun and provided some needed whimsy, and it stopped before it became too much. I found myself thinking afterward, oddly, that this was a better ballet than it looked.

Thank goodness for sky blue backdrops and bright light. I hadn’t seen Balanchine’s champagne-esque Donizetti Variations in a while; it was like seeing it for the first time all over again, and it was lots of fun. Megan Fairchild sparkled with delicious toe work, while Joaquin DeLuz’s leaps and tours were exciting and strong. The ballet grows in crazed delight (or was that us?) as it moves on to a show-offy finale.

Jerome Robbins’ The Concert, a humorous piece from 1956, provided more giggles than the belly laughs I remembered from a decade or so ago. But the Raindrop Waltz is still one of the more brilliant few minutes of theater. Nancy McDill proved a droll pianist, and I had fun with Andrew Veyette’s cigar chomping husband—and evidently, so did he.

One wishes that most of the new ballets had not gone to such trouble to disguise or deemphasize the dancers’ personalities and often their power as dancers, several of whom said farewell this season: Yvonne Borree, Philip Neal, Albert Evans, and Darci Kistler, who has been saying goodbye for years; I’ll miss her, but all the talk about the end of an era is about a decade late. I will definitely miss the marvelous Maurice Kaplan, the conductor who looks like Santa Claus. I remember wincing through the early 1990s while listening to the orchestra; those days are over, and Kaplan harvested the fruit. The NYCB orchestra is, well, phenomenal, as demonstrated by their work in this season of those seven new ballets with those five new commissioned scores plus a repertory that includes Bach, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Prokofiev, and Gershwin. Martins’ idea to toss new music at the orchestra and at the audience is highly justified. The architecture of dance? It’s all inside the music, which is where the dancing belongs.

Mirage: Music by Esa-Pekka Salonen; Choreography by Peter Martins; Scenic Design by Santiago Calatrava; Costumes by Marc Happel; Lighting by Mark Stanley; Guest Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen; Guest Solo Violinist: Leila Josefowicz; Featuring: Jennie Somogyi, Jared Angle, Kathryn Morgan, Chase Finlay, Erica Pereira, Anthony Huxley.

Luce Nascosta (Unseen Light): Music by Bruno Moretti; Choreography by Mauro Bigonzetti; Scenic Design by Santiago Calatrava; Costumes by Marc Happel; Lighting by Mark Stanley; Featuring Ashley Bouder, Maria Kowroski, Tiler Peck, Teresa Reichlen, Tyler Angle, Gonzalo Garcia, Amar Ramasar, and Jonathan Stafford.

New York City Ballet’s Spring 2010 season ended June 27 at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. NYCB will present its first Fall season September 14 through October 10, and will feature a new ballet by Benjamin Millipied set to a score by David Lang and a major revival of Peter Martins’ The Magic Flute. Other ballets for the season include George Balanchine’s Chaconne, Divertimento No. 15, Prodigal Son, and Square Dance; Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering, Glass Pieces, and The Four Seasons; Peter Martins’ Swan Lake; and Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia, as well as several of the ballets from the Architecture of Dance series. For more information, visit the company’s Web site at

Writer/singer Mary Sheeran’s 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. She has sung through several operas, cabarets, and song recitals in New York, including several performances of Songs From the Balanchine Repertory.