Monday, May 30, 2011

Nuns, Silly and Serious, Hit Broadway

I wrote this feature for the May 13, 2011 issue of NCR.

Sr. Jamison Connelly is a counselor in a Catholic drug rehabilitation center. Her garb is standard middle-aged nun fare, black skirt and vest, royal blue shirt, a crucifix pin, a simple wedding band. She depends on prayer to get her through her challenging work. And she swears -- profusely.

Nearby, at the Queen of Angels convent, the sisters have no discernible work. Attired in full black and white habits, with only their faces showing, they giggle and sing their way through the day -- “Praise the Lord, it’s good to be a nun. . . The world’s your oyster when you’re locked inside a cloister.” It’s easy to imagine they’ve never heard a curse word, much less uttered one.

Such are the portrayals of women religious in two shows that opened within 24 hours on Broadway last month, “High” and “Sister Act.” “High” closed on April 24, just five days after opening, due to mixed to negative reviews, but will probably go back out to regional theatres.

“High,” a drama by Matthew Lombardo, is born from his life experience. "Sister Act" is a musicalized version of the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg movie about nuns harboring a second-rate lounge singer who has witnessed a murder. It would have seemed both shows would have attracted audiences -- “High” because it starred an A-list Hollywood and theatre actress, Kathleen Turner, and “Sister Act” because it’s a musical and the film was a hit that spawned a follow-up film. (Goldberg is a producer of the Broadway version.)

While audiences may latch onto these current nun stories, the real vowed women likely felt much more of a kinship at the Booth Theatre with Sr. Jamison, a former drug addict who was homeless for several years at the height of her addiction, than they are to the comic characters up the street at the Broadway Theatre. (As silly as the nuns can be in “Sister Act,” at least they’re women. In his Off-Broadway show “The Divine Sister,” female impersonator Charles Busch offers a spoof of the far-fetched nun portrayals from 1960s movies such as “The Singing Nun” and “The Trouble with Angels.”)

The realistic quality Lombardo brings to Sr. Jamison is natural considering the Catholic playwright based her in part on a high school teacher. But what makes her even more believable is what else he drew upon -- his faith and how that enabled him to recover from a seven-year addiction to crystal meth.

“Sr. Jamison is a nun, but I think she doesn’t buy into a lot of Catholicism,” Lombardo said one afternoon during an interview in the conference room of his show’s publicist. “She has her special relationship with God. She gets him and he gets her. She covers herself in being a nun.”

Her descent into addiction and homelessness was caused largely by guilt she carried from her teenage years, believing she was responsible for her younger sister’s death after the boy she brought home one night murdered the girl while Jamison was passed out downstairs.

After three and a half years on the street, Jamison got sober, returned to her childhood faith and became a nun “to find forgiveness and seek redemption.” She explains that doing all of that was enough. Giving up profanity as well would be “too much for one lifetime.”

“I curse -- a lot,” she says. “It’s one of my character defects.”

She’s also quick with a sarcastic response. Complaining one morning about starting work so early, her superior, Fr. Michael Delpapp (Stephen Kunken), asks if she hadn’t had to get up early in the convent.

“No, and we didn’t make bread and cheese for the townspeople,” she quips.

Lombardo says nuns were his biggest fan base in pre-Broadway productions in Hartford, Cincinnati and St. Louis, responding to Sr. Jamison’s unconventionality.

“She’s a very human, tangible character. They respond to her faith, in some way, and to her flaws.”

The nuns in “Sister Act” lean more toward caricature, in keeping with the genre of musical comedy and the model set by the movie, although one of their creators, playwright Douglas Carter Beane, based them in part on the sisters he encountered growing up in Philadelphia in the 1970s (the same city and decade in which the show is set). A Protestant with “a long line of Methodist ministers in my family,” Beane got to know and admire nuns when he was a student choir member competing with Catholic schools.

“They were always full of life and fun and enthusiasm, and they were great listeners,” said Beane during a telephone interview from his Manhattan home. “I have no horror stories. They were loving, nurturing people. I didn’t have that (Protestant) prejudice. It was very much the opposite.”

For this reason, even though his job is to shoot for comedy rather than realism, he has worked to invest his sisters with as much truth and integrity as possible and make the religious references real enough that “a Catholic person seeing the show would have a good time.”

“I want to treat them as human beings. That allows me to write people as best I can without pushing a viewpoint. I want it to be a Christian review of life within the confines of a Broadway theatre, to not sound preachy and to be uplifting.”

Since this is his “first Catholic piece,” he spent a great deal of time on the web site Fish on Friday, which attempts to explain Catholicism to non-Catholics, “went to St. Patrick’s a lot and did a lot more kneeling” -- including lighting candles to St. Jude when the going got tough -- and read interviews with nuns online. He also sent his script to a nun who was the sister of a theatre friend and she returned it with comments in the margins. When he had immediate questions he took them to two Catholic cast members, Fred Applegate (Monsignor O’Hara) whose wife is a liturgist, and Audrie Neenan (Sr. Mary Lazarus) who had earlier in life considered becoming a nun.

Beane wasn’t the only one searching for credibility. Victoria Clark (Mother Superior) corresponded with the Reverend Mother Dolores Hart, a former actress who is now prioress of the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, CT. Beane had hoped to invite Hart and all the sister consultants to opening night, but because it fell during Holy Week he was planning a night for them at a later time.

As for the authenticity of the habits, when the costume designer asked him what order the sisters were, he said he didn’t care as long as they weren’t too restricted for their dance numbers.

“It’s an imaginary order,” he said. “It’s a Christian viewpoint I felt very comfortable with.” They continue to wear full habits as “the last order still holding out.”

Lombardo didn’t consult any nuns about his script, drawing Sr. Jamison as a composite of three people: a teacher at South Catholic High School in Hartford, CT, Sr. Maureen Reardon; his no-nonsense rehabilitation sponsor and his mother, a compassionate woman “who says the rosary everyday like a good Catholic woman should. She taught me my religion.”

The influences are obvious. Sr. Jamison is never so real as when she prays. Ordered by Fr. Michael to take on the case of a 19-year-old addict she feels inadequate to treat, she beseeches the Trinitarian God for help in formal prayer, but she also talks to God as a companion.

“You have got to meet me halfway or it’s not going to work,” she cries out, echoing the words the playwright uttered himself at his darkest hour. Until he was 36 he had been strongly anti-drugs, but then he fell in love with the wrong guy.

“He was addicted to crystal meth and I was addicted to him,” he says about the start of the seven-year downward spiral during which he lost his home, his career and his family wouldn’t talk to him unless he agreed to go into therapy.

That day finally came on June 2, 2007 when he woke up in a seedy Times Square hotel in a room where the windows were covered with tinfoil, blankets and sheets, an addict’s attempt to keep out all brightness. Lombardo stumbled into the bathroom, turned on the harsh light and looked into the mirror. The wasted man staring back jolted him, as he realized for the first time what he had become, a drug addict.

The revelation drove him to tears, then to raging at God for allowing it to happen. At that moment, the duct tape holding up a sheet peeled off and the tinfoil fell. A spot of afternoon sun bounced off the mirror, filling the room with light and color. He doesn’t know whether it was coincidence, divine intervention or a drug-induced hallucination, but it was the epiphany he needed. He got down on his knees and told God he would get himself into a taxi and to a hospital if God would see him through recovery.

“You have to believe in a power greater than yourself,” he says. “It was faith that gave me the strength to get sober and to write the play.”

It wasn’t only his personal life that changed. Before “High,” he wrote what he describes as “fluffy light comedies.” His harrowing journey changed that.

“I thought, ‘Maybe this came into my life for a reason.’ What I knew was being an addict and Catholicism. Maybe there was something in that challenge of life that I could turn into my art.”

Using his experience, he broadened his play to appeal to a larger audience than just Catholics and former addicts.

“I tried to make it more about faith than religion. It’s set in a Catholic rehabilitation center but it’s about a much bigger discussion.”

Like Sr. Jamison, he relies on faith to carry him through.

“I go to many recovery meetings. That’s where my faith is restored, being in a room full of people who share belief in a higher power restores me and my faith and my sobriety.”

He learned that faith is the only way he can continue.

“Addiction is indeed a disease. The American Medical Association says there is no cure but there is treatment and the best is a 12-step program based on the belief in a power greater than yourself. Isn’t it beautiful that the American Medical Association says if you find faith you will get sober? It’s the only disease treated with faith.”

And he thinks it’s great that two plays about the importance of faith opened back-to-back on the Great White Way this season.

“It’s where we are in our history today. People want to have faith. They’re looking for something greater than themselves.”

Beane agreed.

“Materialism is kind of running its course,” he said. “People are asking, ‘Why are we here? Is there anything more to life?’”

Sunday, May 29, 2011

La Sonnambula With Janie Taylor at the New York City Ballet

By Mary Sheeran
Since I’ve written a novel called Quest of the Sleeping Princess, you would be correct that I would like George Balanchine’s La Sonnambula. Yes, I’ve always loved it (and it figures in my book!). The ballet takes its music from the opera by Bellini (the music is actually written by Vittorio Rieti after themes by Bellini) but the story is different. The ballet tells the story of a poet who falls in love with the Sleepwalker, who is actually the spectre of a Sleepwalker. Admittedly, the story’s always been a little difficult to “get into.” After all, to paraphrase the choreographer himself, how does one dance the role of a poet?
 Well, I had no trouble getting into the ballet last Friday, for the superb cast included Robert Fairchild as the Poet, Jennie Somogyi as the Coquette, Justin Peck as the Baron, and Janie Taylor in a “why hasn’t she ever done this before” debut. The whole production seemed richly human and approachable except, of course, for Taylor, who seemed richly spectral. The contrast illuminated the piece dramatically; I felt I was seeing it for the first time.
Taylor is blond, pale, tall, ethereal. When she floats out on toe, the Poet takes her candle and tries to get her attention. This produces a bit of Tom Sawyer/Becky Thatcher humor, which underlines the poet’s frustrations and our sympathy for him. Taylor seems a matter-of-fact spectre as she floats across the stage with nary a toe shoe pounding, but there’s a whimsy to her; we smile because we are both baffled and enthralled. She’s in her own world. Nothing the Poet does can get her attention, and when he even has her fixed for a kiss, their lips never meet. You feel for him and wonder about her. Perhaps she is searching for a lost love.  Well, she finds him in her future, as the story’s more operatic turn brings the Poet to her arms. Forever.
Fairchild is a believable young poet, brash, full of feeling, and more human than most. Somogyi is one of the few to bring real life to the Coquette, you can feel along with her. All this, plus the haunting Bellini music, particularly the aria (unsung, of course, but people around me were all humming) “Ah, non credea mirarti,” possibly one of the loveliest melodies ever written, underlined one beautifully haunting ballet.
 I also enjoyed, thoroughly, my first look at Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia, a ballet now 10 years old, that started the buzz about this now busy and still wonderful maker of ballets. Wheeldon has a sensitivity to music that translates well into dance. The ballet’s cast included the remarkable Sara Mearns.
 The program also included Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15, a nice Mozartean balance to the Bellini, with a quicksilver ending to the folksong Mozart borrowed, “The Farmer’s Wife Has Lost Her Cat.” That Mozart had a sensitive ear for music, too, and his music haunts us with its crystalline purity, no matter how he got into it.
Divertimento No. 15: Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; Choreography by George Balanchine; Costumes by Karinska. Premiere: May 31, 1956, American Shakespeare Theater, Stratford, Connecticut. Polyphonia: Music by Gyorgy Ligeti; Choreography by Christopher Wheeldon; Costumes by HollyHynes; Premiere: Jan. 4, 2001, New York State Theater. La Sonnambula: Music by Vittorio Rieti (after themes of Vincenzo Bellini); Choreographed by George Balanchine; Scenery and Costumes by Alain Vaes. Premiere: Feb. 27, 1948, Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, City Center of Music and Drama; NYCB Premiere: Jan. 6, 1960, City Center of Music and Drama.
New York City Ballet’s season at Lincoln Center continues through June 12. For information and tickets, visit

Mary Sheeran is a singer and writer whose recent novel, Quest of the Sleeping Princess, takes place during a gala performance at the New York City Ballet ( Her CD recording, Through the Years, is available on CD Baby.
Photo: Janie Taylor and Robert Fairchild in La Sonnambula. (Kolnick)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Lucky Guy

I left the theatre last night sad and disappointed. Not with any aspect of Lucky Guy, every bit of which is a joy, but because I had just heard that it’s closing on Sunday, 10 days after it opened at the Little Shubert Theatre. How unfair that so much junk lingers while this fresh, winning new musical comedy is folding too soon.

All the ingredients seemed right to me -- the story is told with tongue-in-cheek glee, the jokes are funny, the performances excellent, the songs lively, and The New York Times' critic, after some fault finding, said its charms “ultimately prove difficult to resist.” Was there not enough money for marketing, or just not enough time to building an audience through words of mouth, enough to fill that theatre, which as far as Off-Broadway theatres go isn’t as little as its name would imply? (And is also considered by some to be cursed.)

The story, written (book, music and lyrics) and directed by Willard Beckham, is simple and oft-told in various forms, a handsome gosh-by-golly young singer/songwriter, Billy Ray (Kyle Dean Massey) comes to Nashville with dreams of success, falls in love with a pretty local girl, Wanda (Savannah Wise) and almost loses everything because of the greed of the town’s used car dealer, Big Al, campily played by the 4-foot, 11 Leslie Jordan.

“Folks making money on other people’s dreams” is how one song puts it. What makes the plot work so well here is how enthusiastically the cast hams it up to let us know they’re in on the fun.

I was hooked right away with the opening number, “Nashville,” sung and danced with gusto by The Buckaroos -- Callan Bergmann, Xavier Cano, Wes Hart and Joshua Woodie. These amazing dancers appear often and are always a treat, especially as tap dancing Indians in headdresses and beaded loin clothes. Terrific choreography by A.C. Ciulla.

Another hoot of a performance is given by Varla Jean Merman (the drag character of Jeffrey Roberson; in photo with Jordan) as Miss Jeannie Jeannine, the Queen of Country Music who hasn’t had a hit in years (and actually only had one hit ever). To prove her identity with her working class fans she lives in a mobile home -- with 28 rooms that she proudly says was featured in Mobile Homes and Gardens. It’s her “monument to humility,” which Billy Ray admiringly calls “a mansion with four-wheel drive.”

Miss Jeannie Jeannine has a secret past life that is revealed in the second act, just another of the hilarious bits in this quirky little show. Her costumes -- she has 19! -- and all of the rest, by William Ivy Long, are country-looking perfect.

This is a musical an entire family could enjoy together. Rob Bissinger’s sets have a cartoonish quality in keeping with the playfulness of the rest of the show. I truly hope Beckham finds some “one in a million, needle in a haystack,” to quote from another song, producers to believe in this show and bring it back in a smaller space where it can grow and even move on to Broadway.

And I want everyone involved to know that my friend Maureen and I had a great time. We laughed -- and laughed -- and I walked home singing the songs in my head. Thank you for that. Any musical theatre lover in town this weekend should take advantage of this last -- for now only, I hope -- chance to see this good-time show.

Tickets are on sale through or at (212) 239-6200 and at The Little Shubert Theatre box office, 422 W. 42nd St., from noon to 6 p.m.

Visit Lucky Guy online at

The Best Is Yet to Come: The Music of Cy Coleman

The title of this show is misleading. The best isn’t yet to come, it’s here right now, onstage at 59E59 Theaters. The Best Is Yet to Come: The Music of Cy Coleman, which opened last night, is a thoroughly delightful 85-minute revue of 32 Cy Coleman songs that reminded me of why I’ve always loved the performing arts, because a good song well sung is a transporting experience, and one that my friend Brenda and I really needed.

The 2010-2011 theatre season was by far the worst I have ever experienced in my dozen or so years as a Drama Desk voter. It started with productions that often bored me -- Mrs. Warren’s Profession springs to mind -- and ended with the most disgusting piece of garbage I’ve ever had to endure in a theatre -- The Motherfucker with the Hat.

In Coleman’s days Broadway writers didn’t create songs about female genital mutilation (The Book of Mormon). Which may be a second way the title is incorrect. The best might just have come and gone.

The appeal of this show hit us the minute we entered the theatre and saw the grand piano and the musicians stands, cream-colored with gold CCs. Brenda said, Oh, I need this. We’ve both been slugging through major life stresses and the chance to escape into a world of romance -- won and lost -- and affairs -- good and bad -- was a blessing.

The mood continued as the eight-piece band, looking the part in their black tie formal wear, walked on and the suave but jovial Billy Stritch, musical director for the evening, took his place at the piano. Then five sparkling singers, also elegantly attired, brought Coleman’s witty and sophisticated lyrics to life -- David Burnham, Sally Mayes, Howard McGillin, Lillias White (in photo with Stritch) and Rachel York, with Stritch contributing some vocals of his own; his “It Amazes Me” was enchanting.

My only regret was director-conceiver David Zippel's decision to have the singers use head mics. In that space gifted singers don’t need amplification, especially not established belters like White. I’m sure they were happy about it, though, and with all the pleasure they brought us I won’t begrudge them the assist.

Zippel’s connection to Coleman goes back to 1989 when he wrote the lyrics and Coleman the music for City of Angels, a Broadway musical (Dec. 1989 - Jan. 1992) which I loved, as did many others. It earned the pair a Best Score Tony Award. They were working on other projects, including a new musical, at the time of Coleman’s death in 2004.

Zippel had discussed with Coleman the idea of a revue of his work. In press notes, he offers Coleman’s response: “That’s for after I’m gone. Let’s write something new.”

To Zippel, that summed up his writing partner perfectly.

“That was Cy in a nutshell -- brave, generous, optimistic, prolific and forward-looking.”

Luckily the composer left behind plenty of songs from Broadway and popular music lists. Besides City of Angels, he composed the music for Sweet Charity, Barnum, The Life (which starred Lillias White), The Will Rogers Follies, Wildcat and Little Me. Many of the standards he wrote were made famous by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Barbra Streisand and are sung in this revue. Among the lyricists besides Zippel featured are Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Dorothy Fields, Ira Gasman, Carolyn Leigh and Michael Stewart.

Coleman was a native New Yorker whose real name was Seymour Kaufman. A prodigy, he played classical music at Carnegie Hall and Town Hall as a child, but as an adult turned his devotion to jazz, popular and show tunes.

One song sums up the evening, and Coleman’s charm, in a single word -- “Witchcraft,” sung bewitchingly by Burnham. We were happy to fall under the spell.

The Best Is Yet to Come continues at 59E59 through July 3. For information, visit or

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


All in all, I am really glad the world did not end last Saturday. Given my penchant for wisecracking, I was surprisingly restrained in my comments about all the drama leading up to it. The one "end of the world party" to which I was invited was very tempting but sounded like the potential for serious trouble since I have an early gig on Sunday mornings. One clear cost of aging for me is the cessation of Saturday night revelry.

The real reason I couldn't be too flip about the non-event is that I found all of it strangely and deeply sad. Let's face it: religion is a mess. The way it is practiced fails people over and over. Some of those who seriously expected the eschaton on Saturday are utterly bereft and in some cases worse than that -- they are broke. Even those who bravely now turn their sights to October 21st as the new end date must feel a bit duped. Once again the public face of Christianity has been sullied by extremism and silliness, both of which make me cringe.

It is easy -- and correct -- to note that there have always been those on the margins of religion, who cross the line into crazy-land. But we on the progressive end of the spectrum contribute to this by not speaking truthfully and clearly what we believe about such things. Often we say, "Well, no one knows, Jesus told us, when the end will come." While that is true (ish), that is just part of the story. We, most of us, do not believe that the world is headed toward some cataclysmic end, designed by God to once and for all divide the world into two camps, those who are in and those who are out. We need to say that with greater clarity and with conviction based on the way we interpret scripture and on what we hold to be true of God.

No, we do not believe that the God of our faith, the God who seeks the fullness of all creation, must resort to such a thoroughly human way of rendering resolution: "Since the world is not working according to a narrowly prescribed understanding of what is right and good, let' just blow it up!" Good grief! Even we could come up with a better solution than that. God's resourcefulness and imagination infinitely exceeds ours.

My son's birthday is October 22nd. I plan to celebrate it with him here on earth. Of course, I know that there is always the chance that I won't, but if I don't, it won't be because God decided to give up on all of us. I'll bet the farm on that!

Monday, May 23, 2011

"Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take with you nothing that you have received... but only what you have given:  a full heart, enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice and courage."  
-- St. Francis of Assisi

Friday, May 20, 2011

The promise of renewal

In Him we live, and move, and have our being. Acts 17:28

This text is a formula for maintaining physical, mental, and spiritual energy. The tension and pressure of modern
living draws wearily upon our energies. But here we have a renewal method. The text reminds us that God created us and that He can constantly and automatically re-create us. The secret is to maintain contact with God. This channels vitality and energy and constant replenishment into our being. Every day, preferably about midafternoon when an energy lag usually comes, try repeating this text while visualizing yourself as “plugged” into the spiritual line. Affirm that God’s recreative energy is restoring strength and power to every part of your body, your mind, and your soul.
-- Dr. Norman Vincent Peale

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Patti LuPone in The Seven Deadly Sins at the New York City Ballet

By Mary Sheeran
Near the end of the New York City Ballet’s new production of The Seven Deadly Sins, Anna I stands on a darkened stage preaching virtue to us all, while behind her rises her gigantic shadow the height of the stage. It’s a wonderful moment, demonstrating in toto the monstrous nature of the character created by Patti LuPone in an unforgettable performance. Nothing hinders or daunts this crisp, business-suited woman nor the woman who portrays her – not a vast stage that does not (despite an expensive do-over) welcome even microphoned voices very well, not the vastness of the audience. Nothing can make this woman seem small (indeed, she grows more threatening with each scene), and at the end, the stage admits it, showing us her real force, a titan firm in her conviction that “those who were good go to bliss unalloyed. Those who were bad are rejected forever.” Anna I has successfully vanquished that part of herself (or her sister, Anna II, you decide), that is her soul, which she victimized beneath the moralistic lash, all a cover-up for a determined grasp for power and wealth.
            Not that such a thing could happen in real life.

I had never seen this 1933 Bertolt Brecht classic nor heard the Kurt Weill music, either, although I certainly had read about it, how it had been produced, directed, and choreographed by George Balanchine at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées in Paris and how it had presented two Annas (or one Anna performed by two artists, one a singer and one a dancer): Anna I, sung by Lotte Lenya and Anna II, danced by Tilly Losch. In the 1950s, Lenya (then Weill’s widow) revived the production and again sang Anna I, with the music transposed down a fourth. A few decades later, Balanchine discussed mounting it again for the New York City Ballet with Bette Midler singing the role of Anna I and Karin von Aroldingen dancing the role of Anna II. This production, unfortunately, was never realized. Even more decades had to pass before a singer with the power to perform Anna I could step onto the New York City Ballet stage. That singer, of course, is Patti LuPone.
Now it is the New York City Ballet’s major event of its spring season, and the work was probably new to most of us. It took me a little time to grasp what was going on. Reading the libretto doesn’t necessarily help: you need to watch the ironic action that, for this production was created by a sly Lynn Taylor-Corbett. The story concerns two sisters (or two aspects of the same person), Anna I and Anna II, who leave their one-room shack in Louisiana to find fame and fortune in American cities, each of which becomes a place of “Sin.” Their goal? Make their fortune and get back home to Louisiana.
The first clue I had that the libretto was not to be taken literally came with the first sin, “Sloth.” For as Anna II is called “Lazybones,” by Anna I and “The Family” (a scary and hilarious group led by the scary and hilarious Raymond Jarmillo McLeod as Mother), Anna II (Wendy Whelan) is engaged in working as hard as Cinderella did before the ball. So why are Anna I (LuPone) and the Family, which also profits from Anna II’s work), nagging at her? We realize that the preaching on the sins is designed encourage Anna II to work herself to the bone while Anna I and the Family profit.  The story is so simply told (and danced) that you could, if you didn’t watch AND listen, miss the point.
            Speaking of listening, it might have been wise to use subtitles in this production, given that the former New York State Theater is not an intimate house. New York City Opera uses subtitles with operas in English, just so you don’t have to strain too much to make out the words. LuPone seemed sensitive to this handicap, and it served her character well to dominate everything in her path, including language, but it was a tough battle for her and us. It definitely helped to read the libretto, but even that did not ease the audience’s negotiation of what could be murky articulation no matter how hard the performers worked.
            Brecht’s libretto (translated by WH Auden) parades through a Biblical seven-year feast of sloth, pride, anger, gluttony, lust, greed, and envy in seven American cities (none of them New York!). The dancing accompanying the words underscored but did not overpower the words. The corps of men dancing as part of the commentaries lacked energy, but that only served to make LuPone appear more powerful, modest as she was in her no-nonsense suit.  For her part, Whelan was wonderful. Usually a powerful force on stage, she was quite pathetic in the wake of Anna I, and when the two Annas stood together, they evoked a palpable oneness.
            At the close of the opera, when LuPone strides triumphantly into the new mansion she has provided the Family and Whelan is destroyed, the irony thoroughly scorches. It would have been more devastating in a smaller theater.
            The Seven Deadly Sins wasn’t the only piece on a glutton-worthy program. We started with Balanchine’s and Bach’s marvelous collaboration in Concerto Barocco (1941) with Teresa Reichlin and Sara Mearns clarifying the two violins with a perky energy (Reichlin) and luxuriant phrasing (Mearns). Justin Peck understated his “is he there or isn’t he” partnering with exemplary delicacy. We also enjoyed the exuberant dancing of consistently excellent Daniel Ulbricht and Tiler Peck in Balanchine’s Tarentella (1964).
            This was a long program. It concluded with Balanchine’s 1977 delight, Vienna Waltzes, a work I can hardly be objective about because it lured me (and I’m sure others) into the world of ballet. Vienna Waltzes never disappoints. One needn’t think.  Just follow the piling of distinctive, inventive waltz phrases upon waltz phrases as the dancers sweep by, observe the courtliness, and feel the sexual tension (although Jenifer Ringer and Ask La Cour lacked the necessary heat for the Gold und Silber Walzer. He was way too innocent and lanky; it spun the story in an unhappy direction. Not much happens here; the heat’s gotta be there).
            For three of the ballet’s five sections, we’ve been seeing a mirror through the Vienna woods (with its strange population of gorgeous waltzers, wood sprites, and clowns), and when the stage transforms into a grand ballroom for the finale, we realize we have been looking into our future. The final Rosenkavalier section with its lush Richard Strauss score veers from delicacy to the hysteria of a society on the brink. In the delicate opening, Balanchine brings back the “is he there or isn’t he” duet once again (male as muse and dream partner), poetic and startling even after all these years, and a welcome contrast before the other dancers sweep by. When the chandeliers blaze and the women swirl in white satin, you almost have to shield your eyes from the brilliance.
            All in all, Friday’s program was filled with riches and the complexity of Balanchine’s world: a cynical view colliding with a romantic view, a couple of teases, a coolly classical delight. Here is a choreographer who was a musician, lived in music, and showed it to us, the ballet master who knew how to fill a stage with elegance, who could toss off the jokes in Tarentella with but two dancers filling the same stage, and the complex musicality and story of The Seven Deadly Sins, which he once choreographed and wanted to again, a desire the company honored with its production that brought the magnificent Patti LuPone to the NYCB stage.
Concerto Barocco: Music by Johann Sebastian Bach (Double Violin Concerto in D minor); Choreography by George Balanchine. Premiere: June 27, 1941, American Ballet Caravan, Rio de Janeiro. NYCB Premiere: October 11, 1948, City Center of Music and Drama, New York.  Tarantella: Music by Louis Moreau Gottschalk Reconstructed and Orchestrated by Hershy Kay; Choreography by George Balanchine; Costumes by Karinska; Premiere: January 7, 1964, City Center of Music and Drama, New York.  Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The Seven Deadly Sins (Ballet chanté in nine scenes): Music by Kurt Weill; Text by Bertolt Brecht; English translation by WH Auden and Chester Kallman; Arrangement for low voice by Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg; Choreography and Direction by Lynne Taylor-Corbett; Costumes by Judanna Lynn; Set Design by Beawulf Boritt; Guest conductor: Paul Gemignani. Premiere: May 11, 2011, NYCB. Vienna Waltzes: Music by Johann Strauss II, Franz Lehár, and Richard Strauss. Choreography by George Balanchine; Scenery by Rouben Ter-Arutunian; Costumes by Karinska; Premiere: June 23, 1977, New York State Theater.
New York City Ballet’s season at Lincoln Center continues through June 12. For information and tickets, visit
Mary Sheeran is a singer and writer whose recent novel, Quest of the Sleeping Princess, takes place during a gala performance at the New York City Ballet ( Her CD recording, Through the Years, is available on CD Baby.
Patti LuPone and Wendy Whelan in The Seven Deadly Sins (Paul Kolnick)

Vienna Waltzes

Maria Kowroski and Charles Askegard in the current New York City Ballet production.
(Photo by Paul Kolnick)
“I think age is a very high price to pay for maturity.”
-- Tom Stoppard

Monday, May 16, 2011

Celebrating Romare Bearden's Centennial

It was good to spend time again with Romare Bearden on Saturday. I first encountered this artist in the early 1980s at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Now the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery is offering an exhibit of 21 of Bearden’s collages made between 1964 and 1983, depicting jazz musicians, rural black families and an imaginative envisioning of the fall of Troy, among other subjects.

The exhibit, “Romare Bearden: A Centennial Celebration,” is on view through Saturday at the Gallery, 24 W. 57th St. Hope you can get there.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Not a trip to fairytale land


Life is short. And fickle, maybe particularly fickle. Circumstances keep reminding me of that fact. Somehow for our faith to be honest we have to accommodate that randomness. People who do what I do often get asked about prayer and particularly about its efficacy. In the short run, the answer is not great; there is not much quid pro quo. Only upon lots of reflection and reorganizing does it come to be good news.

What we get from prayer is God, just that. Honestly that is not what we are always looking for. I am speaking from experience here.

We have all sorts of requests -- prayers for people we love, for jobs and things, for health and safety, for someone to love, for world peace and the end of hunger. There is no end to our intercessions. I often wonder if we need to rethink the whole concept of prayer. For example, what would prayer be like if we tried to pray just to know God, to experience the presence of God or, even better, if we prayed simply to be quiet, to sit in the presence of God? There'd be everything to gain -- like God, for example -- and a whole lot less to lose, less potential for hideous disappointment in the outcome.

But, of course, any kind of praying is infinitely better than not praying. Ann Ulanov, in her seminal book Primary Speech, writes that our praying for others creates an "ocean of connectedness." Somehow I know very deeply what that means: just saying someone's name in the quiet of prayer puts me along side him/her in a way that other thoughts can't quite deliver. It gets me out of myself for a moment, and that is almost always a good thing. I plan to keep that up.

Though I treasure Anne Lamott, I am never quite able to fully embrace her theology of prayer no matter how much I want to. She believes in some ways that I just can't quite manage, but I love one of her sound bytes about prayer. She says that her praying can be summed up like this: "help me, help me, help me, and thank you, thank you, thank you."

Maturity about prayer is adult stuff. I am afraid that many people are disillusioned with religion because they never learned an adult way to pray. The truth is we know that it is not a trip to fairytale land, and we probably need to be as honest about that as our anxiety will allow. In the end, prayer is a relationship with a real deity and with real people in our lives.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Psychoanalyze This

I wrote this feature for the May 22, 2011 issue of the Living Church magazine.

Sigmund Freud waits excitedly in his book-lined London office, eager for his visitor to arrive. He’s geared up for a different kind of analysis today, the chance to tear to shreds the faith of his guest, an on-the-rise Oxford professor named C.S. Lewis. But the atheist father of psychoanalysis soon learns the Christian convert can hold his own just fine in their fast-paced debates about the existence of God, the joy of love, the purpose of sex and the meaning of life.

Did these two influential thinkers of the 20th century ever really meet? Probably not, says Mark St. Germain, the man who has brought them together now in Freud’s Last Session, an Off-Broadway hit that has become the longest-running play of the season. This success follows its world premiere in June 2009 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.

“People said, ‘It’s not a good idea. Who’s going to see it?’” St. Germain said. The 56-year-old playwright, dressed in jeans, a navy shirt and gray tweed sports jacket, has come to his producer’s Times Square office on a sunny spring afternoon to discuss the play that has turned conventional theatre wisdom on its head.

“Producers said it will never run a day in New York: ‘A play that involves God and is a serious play? The press will kill you.’”

Naysayers were wrong on that one. Reviews have been good and audiences are spreading the news. One poll found that 80 percent came because of word-of-mouth. Still, the show’s producers aren’t taking any chances, running catchy newspaper ads like “Woody Allen had a session with Freud” and others that name Barbara Walters and Alec Baldwin.

The playwright in St. Germain saw the possibility for a juicy new play while reading Harvard professor Armand M. Nicholi Jr.’s best-selling book The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life, which 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.

“I knew right away that it had to be a play,” he said. “The two of them were such extreme opposites. It was a fun thing to do dramatically.”

He secured permission from Nicholi and went to work.

“I thought it wouldn’t be that tough to research,” he said, but found that while he could distinguish the two men’s philosophies easily enough, getting to the heart of them as people was going to take time. He spent two years reading biographies, then wrote the 75-minute, two-character play in three months.

St. Germain says he’s surprised “in a way” by the show’s reception, although he did sense its possibilities when, in its developmental stage, readings began drawing packed houses. Then and in its early performances the playwright paid careful attention to audience reactions and then expanded or condensed the arguments in his rewrites.

“I didn’t want to create icons,” he said. “You’re dealing with two geniuses, so the level of conversation is elegant, but they must be human. We have to get to know them as people.”

Still, a discussion of religion could really bomb theatrically without the right ingredients. St. Germain has that in his actors, both of whom have been with the show from the beginning — Mark H. Dold as Lewis and Martin Rayner as Freud — and in director Tyler Marchant. Brian Prather’s outstanding set creates the atmosphere — Freud’s book- and artifact-filled London study, with its dark furniture, Victorian lamps, Oriental rugs and, oh, yes, that infamous therapeutic couch.

Freud’s Last Session is 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 (authentic) 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 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.

“I did a lot of whittling down to get the delicate balance,” he says. “I was trying to present ideas in a way that was theatrical and not didactic.”

St. Germain is used to finding that balance. Besides several straight plays, he’s also co-written musicals and has solid TV credits, including that of writer and creative consultant for The Cosby Show. He directed and co-produced the documentary "My Dog: An Unconditional Love Story," featuring Richard Gere, Glenn Close, Isaac Mizrahi, Edward Albee and many others, and wrote the children’s book Three Cups. His newest play, The Best of Enemies, is about the friendship between black activist Ann Atwater and ex-Klansman C.P. Ellis. It will premiere at the Barrington Stage Company in July.

The opening of the new play will keep St. Germain from attending the Lewis Institute’s reading of Freud’s Last Session this summer at Oxford University. But he’ll have other opportunities to see his little-engine-that-could play in other locales as touring companies launch productions in Los Angeles, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Mexico City and Rio. And the Off-Broadway run continues at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater. St. Germain thinks it’s filling an unmet need.

“It’s unlike anything in New York,” he says. “People like to be challenged to think about their beliefs. It’s not something they do everyday. It’s usually an event or a crisis that makes you examine your beliefs.”

St. Germain won’t discuss his own beliefs, concerned that people will read a bias into the play. He did say he grew up Roman Catholic but no longer follows that tradition.

Asked why Lewis’s work has remained popular while Freud’s has fallen out of favor, St. Germain pauses before answering. He thinks many people first discover Lewis through the Chronicles of Narnia and are then compelled to search out more of his work.

“I never felt Lewis was didactic,” he says. “It always seemed like he’s writing to you like writing to a friend. People identify with him. His writing is accessible.”

Both men became accessible to St. Germain as they came to life while he was writing.

“I listened to them,” he says. “They were certainly good company. They were constantly thinking and talking about things that were important.”

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Believe in Yourself

I Will Not Dance


It is a scene I will never forget. Late on Sept. 11, 2001, having watched the towers fall literally hundreds of times by then, I finally left my friends and colleagues in San Francisco with whom I had spent the day, almost unable to move -- so hypnotized by the horror of it. I remember getting to my apartment and, of course, immediately snapping on the television. Like so many who did not live in New York City, I imagined incorrectly that my helplessness would seem less if I were not so far away, feeling somehow that watching every moment was the least I could do.

Just as I was falling asleep, I saw a new scene on the screen, images of people in other countries dancing for joy in the streets. Nearly three thousand people had been killed, and there was rejoicing. Though this seems incredibly naive now, I was shocked, somehow realizing at that moment in a new way that we were in deep, deep trouble.

Osama Bin Laden was an evil man, monstrously twisted by hate and the certainty of religious absolutism. I am glad that he is no longer able to spew his vitriolic and incessant call to violence. My guess is that the courageous men who stormed his compound had no choice; Bin Laden died as he lived, violently with a weapon in his hands.

But I will not dance at death. I will not tell others, unless asked, how they should respond. But I will not dance. Sanctimonious? No. I make no claims of moral superiority, knowing full well the slipperiness of that slope. Nor do I claim scriptural authority or purity, again knowing that I can be out-thumped by any number of thumpers.

I am simply fearful that the damage such rejoicing would bring to my soul -- a soul, which has lived long enough already to be injured by the reality of life -- would for me be beyond repair.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Ann Curry: An Act of Faith

Journalism, says the "Today" show news anchor, should do more than inform. It should make you care.

This essay by Ann Curry appeared in Guideposts magazine. Congratulations to her on her long-deserved promotion to co-host.

"How do you keep doing what you do?” people ask me all the time.

It’s a good question.

Over the past two years alone, my work for NBC News has taken me to Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, India, Congo and the edge of Darfur. Why is it I feel driven to cover these stories of human suffering, including Hurricane Katrina and the Southeast Asian tsunami, when it means leaving my husband and two children behind at home?

I don’t have to. Anchoring the news on "Today" and "Dateline NBC" keeps me busy enough.

To be honest, leaving my family for days—even weeks—at a time is painful. It also hurts to see the degree to which people suffer in parts of the world.

There are days when I wonder if I’m a bit traumatized by it all. But still, when these stories happen, I feel a call, an urgency, to report them because I know I can give voice to those who need to be heard. Not only do they deserve that, but you deserve it too.

Your knowing about what’s happening in the rest of the world gives you a chance to care, and it is that empathy that offers the greatest hope. You see, I believe journalism is an act of faith in the future. That might sound strange in this day and age when so much on TV seems scandalous or frivolous. But then, I am my parents’ child, living lessons that have guided me from the beginning.

My father, Bob Curry, was a career Navy man who enlisted right out of high school. My mother was the daughter of a Japanese rice farmer. Her name was Hiroe.

They met when Dad was stationed in Japan as part of the Allied occupation forces after World War II. The war left my mom’s family without seed to grow their crop, so at 18 she found a job in the city as a streetcar conductor. My dad happened to get on her streetcar one day, and knew he had to see her again. He took that streetcar every day until he worked up the nerve to ask her on a date. They went out for noodles and fell headlong in love.

Back then the Navy frowned on marriages between American servicemen and Japanese women, and shipped my father out before a ceremony could take place. It took two years, but he managed to get sent back to Japan. He told me of taking her into his arms again, only to realize she was extremely thin. It turned out she had tuberculosis and wasn’t expected to live.

He used her healthy sister’s lung X rays to get clearance from Navy doctors, and married her anyway. Now that she was a U.S. military wife, she was able to get the care she needed. She survived to become the mother of five, of which I’m the oldest.

Dad stayed in the Navy for nearly 30 years, and so our family moved often. We lived in Guam, Japan, Hawaii, Virginia, California, until he finally retired in Ashland, Oregon, where I finished high school.

An enlisted man’s salary didn’t go far when there were five kids to raise. My parents couldn’t give us much in the way of material possessions, but they made sure we knew the importance of family and honor, character and love.

Mom was the embodiment of perseverance in the face of adversity. She’d endured bombing raids and starvation during the war, TB during the occupation and racism when she came to the U.S. At that time it was hard for people to accept her.

“Gambaru,” she used to tell me, which is Japanese for “Never ever give up, even and especially when there’s no chance of winning.” She’d been raised Buddhist, but when she needed spiritual sustenance in America, she couldn’t find a temple. She finally found the Catholic church.

She didn’t know a word of Latin and her English wasn’t good either, but that didn’t stop her. She felt close to God in church, and that’s what mattered. Besides, she had me to tell her when to stand, kneel or sit during the service.

Life as a mixed-race child in a poor family wasn’t easy. “Ann, this is good for you,” Dad would say when I complained. “Trials and tribulations make you stronger.”

He got tired of hearing all five of his kids whine. One day he announced, “The next person who says, ‘That’s not fair’ is going to drop and do ten push-ups. I don’t care where we are.” Doing 10 on the sidewalk in front of a bunch of people? We did it, and learned quickly whining didn’t accomplish anything.

That might not have meant so much if it weren’t for one time we got on a bus. It was crowded and the five of us jumped into empty seats before Dad could get one. “That’s not fair,” he said. We looked at him. Without another word, he dropped down in the aisle and did 10 push-ups! To see our father be true to his word was a great lesson in character.

When I got older, Dad and I would have dinner-table debates about the Vietnam War. I was a teenager deeply affected by Walter Cronkite’s reports on the war and I questioned our country’s role. Sometimes our discussions got so heated, my siblings would pick up their plates and leave the table.

“I don’t always agree with you,” Dad would say at the end, “but I’d still vote for you for president.” I knew he was proud of me for caring about something bigger, something beyond my day-to-day high school life. It tied in to what he was always telling me, “Do something of service, Ann. So that at the end of your days, you’ll know your time here mattered.”

I decided the best way to do that was to be a journalist. He respected my choice, and a girl could not have asked for a greater cheerleader than I had in my dad.

My father and I were the first in our family to go to college, and we went at the same time. He was on the GI bill. I got a few small scholarships and did all kinds of work to pay my way through the University of Oregon—bookstore clerk, sandwich maker, hotel maid.

I got a job as an intern at KTVL, the local TV station, but when I applied to be a reporter, the producer told me there’d never been a woman reporter in the newsroom because women didn’t have news judgment. Do you think the daughter of Hiroe and Bob Curry would let that dissuade her? Of course not. I convinced him to give me a chance.

I became the station’s first woman reporter. When I left for a bigger city, that producer called me and said I should never let anything he told me stop me from my dreams.

Eventually I got to Los Angeles, where I covered big breaking stories, but the one I remember most was about a boy who was born with his thumb fused to his hand. He was miserable because kids made fun of him, but his parents were poor immigrants who couldn’t afford surgery.

A nurse caught the story on TV, talked to a surgeon and they arranged for the boy to have the operation free. His family invited me to the recovery room. The boy proudly held up his hand and said, “Thank you.” At that moment, I understood why my father pushed me to use my talents to serve others. I felt an incredible sense of fulfillment knowing one small thing I did helped make a difference in someone else’s life.

I joined NBC News in the 1990s, and found myself drawn to telling stories of people who might otherwise not be heard. Interestingly enough, what some might consider a big professional disappointment—not being named cohost of "Today" when Katie Couric left—has only clarified my mission. I would’ve loved that job, but not getting it made me think, What is it I need to be doing?

The answer was clear: humanitarian reporting—finding those who are suffering far from the eyes of the world and getting their stories out, making people care about them. That’s what brings me back to places like Congo. Most people don’t realize it is the site of the deadliest conflict since World War II. The fighting and war crimes against civilians challenge every definition of decency. Thousands die every month from malnutrition and disease.

Yet even in this place of suffering, it is possible to find hope. I’ll never forget Sifa, an 18-year-old Congolese woman I met in February 2008. I talked to her in the hospital. What she told me made me weep. Her parents were killed in front of her. She ran, but the killers caught her, chained her to a tree and raped her. She became pregnant; when the baby came, everything inside her broke. “Do you want revenge?” I asked.

She said, “No, all I want is to rise from this bed, thank the people who helped me and work for God.”

Almost without thinking, my fingers went to my necklace. It had a little gold charm, the Sanskrit symbol for peace. Peace was my prayer for her and her country. I took the necklace off and clasped it around her neck. For her dignity I walked out of the room without looking back. But my producer was watching. He said she raised her head in a little bow.

How do I keep doing what I do? I believe in people like Sifa, who can teach us all about resilience. And I believe in you. I know you special souls will care about people like her, who have no one to protect them.

I have faith that once you hear about someone’s suffering—even someone whose language you can’t speak, whose customs you don’t share—you will care enough to help.