Friday, December 24, 2010

The Kindle is a Grinch

Ann wanted one thing for the holidays, a Kindle, so badly in fact, she opened that box from Amazon as soon as my gift arrived, activated the device and now she carries it with her wherever she goes.

But I was not thinking through the serious collateral damage in giving her such a Christmas present. It now deprives me of the one great gift giving pleasure I have had at this time of the year, deciding what books to give her, wrapping them carefully, taking such pleasure in hopefully guessing what she would love, handling those handsome books, some with deckled edges or beautiful illustrations, and then sharing the experience of watching her open them on Christmas morning. Simply put, I now no longer have anything that I love to buy for the holidays as I really don't enjoy almost any other gift giving.

The truth be told, I would also slip in a book or two that I know I would enjoy reading, maybe a recent novel by Anne Tyler who we both love. And that is another Kindle theft -- how does she share a downloaded Tyler novel with me after she is finished reading it if she is always on the Kindle?

I'm not a Luddite, and see the advantages of the Kindle, particularly for traveling, but apparently it is addictive -- once hooked, that is how one reads. The holidays have changed enough for us, having raised our children, they now living far away, so we have segued from the snowy family Christmases in Connecticut, the big fresh cut tree, setting up the train set for the kids and wrapping their presents, and let's not forget one another, to the artificial holidays here in Florida (although there is a wonderful tradition here to light luminaria all along our road on Christmas Eve) .

The only remnant of our own Christmas decorations is now a wreath on our door, but, still, there was always the anticipation of giving books for the holiday, a pleasure now stolen by the Kindle Grinch.

Nonetheless, from Christmases past, Happy Holidays to all, and to all a good-night!


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Winter Solstice

The winter solstice was special this year because of a rare eclipse of the moon. But for the last thirty years or so it also has been a special day for my friend, Ray, and myself. Wherever we may be, we always made it a point to speak on that day. This ritual was to acknowledge that although the long cold days of winter were just beginning, the days were getting longer and it will only be a matter of time until our families would be back boating together again on the Long Island Sound and spending many weekends at our mooring off the Norwalk Islands. It also marked the beginning of our thinking about our traditional summer vacation at Block Island

Now, with our families grown, and both being retired, our boating lives have changed and in fact as he and Sue now spend their winters in the Bahamas on their boat 'Last Dance,' and we live in Florida, except during the summers when we still live on our boat 'Swept Away' in Connecticut (and they return to Norwalk as well on their boat), perhaps this particular day has lost some of its significance. Nonetheless, I will make the call or await Ray's call and we will talk, perhaps of days gone by but also of next summer, but certainly to commemorate the moment.

Coincidentally, when Google Maps updated last summer, Ann and I just happened to be out on our boat that day, alone at the mooring we had shared for so many of those summer days. By putting in the Lat/Lon coordinates in Google Maps 41.061561,-73.388698 will first show the nearest land, and below that point the green arrow points to our boat on that particular day. A rare happenstance, a satellite view of the moment, perhaps like an eclipse on the winter solstice?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

My Second Session with Freud

In the blink of an eye almost a half year has gone by since we saw the NYC premiere of Freud’s Last Session by Mark St. Germain, wondering how it will translate to the venue of Dramaworks in West Palm Beach. Last night we attended the preview of the production which was directed by Bill Hayes, who is also the Producing Artistic Director of Dramaworks, the best (and most serious) theater in South Florida. He had promised something "different" than the NYC production, and he delivered.

The play is about a fictitious meeting between two great thinkers, C.S. Lewis, the Christian apologist, and Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis and a staunch atheist, towards the end of Freud's life and at the onset of WW II and is set in Freud's study in London. In a sense, the outbreak of war is another "character" in the play, one which helps develop the dramatic tension. It is a perfect conceit to spin a play about great ideas confronting the inexplicable transience of life and the gathering storm of man's inhumanity to man. Still there is a playful humor between these two great philosophers and this helps to relieve some of the tension of the intellectual dialogue. They both seem to agree on one thing: "humor tips the scales."

The New York Times review of the NYC production, while overall praising the work, was critical of there being a “lack of tension” or lack of “suspense.” Dramaworks has addressed that, getting to more of the core emotions of the two, sometimes finding they share more as human beings in spite of their philosophical differences. Of course it helps to have two fine actors to direct, Dennis Creaghan who I will always remember for his role as Don, the owner of the junk shop in David Mamet's American Buffalo which played last year. It shows the range of his acting abilities to go from the staccato street dialogue of Mamet to the thoughtful, brooding pronouncements of a Freud. Chris Oden, playing Freud's foil, C.S. Lewis, always seems to have the perfect theist rejoinder to Freud's scientific view, and Oden plays the role convincingly with passion.

I had said in my "review" of the NYC production that we felt as if we were in Freud's study, but that sensation has been used to even greater advantage by Hayes, and his set designer Michael Amico, in the intimate setting of Dramaworks' theatre, where the audience sits, literally, on the very edge of the stage in a stadium seating configuration -- rather than having to look up at the action as it was presented in NY. Dramaworks has perfectly replicated a typical London mews apartment and faithfully captured Freud's study with his ancient artifacts, even down to copying the chair he sat in!

Kudos again to Palm Beach Dramaworks, theater to think about which always rises to the occasion.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Finishing The Hat

This is one of the most remarkable documents of the theater that I've ever read, so exceptional in fact that I'm having trouble breezing through it, instead savoring every word. So even though I'm only half-way through, I'm writing a "first installment review," a respite from the political and economic shenanigans I've been held hostage to over the last few weeks. I prefer to think about great literature, music, or theater and Finishing The Hat; Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010) is a perfect Trifecta.

This is a detailed account of the American Broadway theater (1954-1981) written by our greatest living Broadway composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, arguably the greatest ever.

As the subtitle hints, it is not only an erudite, introspective, and sometimes self deprecating account of his own works with the complete lyrics, both those retained and discarded for the shows he wrote during the period, it is also a frank discussion of the "major players" of his time, most of whom he of course knew or knows, and some of whom he did not but nonetheless influenced him in some way. I call this book "a document" as only a first-hand participant of Sondheim's stature could make his reminiscences a treasure-trove which will be studied by students of Broadway for years to come. We can eagerly await Sondheim's next installment covering the musicals after 1981.

Although as a young man Sondheim struggled to become known as a composer, Finishing The Hat understandably focuses on his lyrics as visiting his music in the same detail would require technical knowledge few of us mere mortals possess. He sets out his mantra for lyrics -- for which he gives attribution to Oscar Hammerstein, his mentor, and Strunk and White's The Elements in Style -- as follows:

1. Content Dictates Form
2. Less is More
3. God is in the Details

As an example of the latter he quotes his lyrics "Losing My Mind" from Follies, one of my many favorite Sondheim pieces, one that is in my own piano repertoire. Funny, I've played this song hundreds of times and never made the connection that as Sondheim puts it, "musically, this was less an homage to, than a theft of, Gershwin's 'The Man I Love,' with near-stenciled rhythms and harmonies" (although the lyrics are more along the lines of Dorothy Fields, a lyricist Sondheim holds in higher esteem than Ira Gershwin). Now I can clearly see the similarities, never noticing them in my many renditions of both songs. But the "God is in the Details" issue is from the last stanza of that song where Sondheim uses the word "To" in the fourth line from the end rather than the more prosaic "And"

"I dim the lights
And think about you,
Spending sleepless nights
To think about you.
You said you loved me,
Or were you just being kind?
Or am I losing my mind?"

Per Sondheim: "...using the word 'to' instead of 'and' ...takes Sally a step further into her obsession with Ben and offers a nice example of the subtle powers of the English language. As I keep saying, God is in the details."

No doubt Sondheim's best work begins when he is both lyricist and composer, finding the perfect marriage of the subtleties of the English language with the progressions and rhythms of music. But before establishing himself as a composer (although he was both lyricist and composer for his rarely performed earliest work, Saturday Night, in 1954), his friend, Oscar Hammerstein, persuaded him first to take on the role of lyricist for West Side Story with the renowned composer, Leonard Bernstein, who according to Sondheim, thought himself "poetic," which set up a continuing battle, Sondheim trying to write lyrics within the characters and Bernstein wanting an unrealistic poetic lyric. Sondheim then was too young and inexperienced and frequently had to accede to Bernstein's demands, something he is still not happy about. I love Sondheim's comments regarding the song "America": "Some lines of this lyric are respectable - sharp and crisp, but some melt in the mouth as gracelessly as peanut butter...."

While things went better when he collaborated with Jule Styne for Gypsy, he felt he was ready to write both the music and lyrics but the show's star, Ethel Merman, insisted on a "name" composer for the show. Nonetheless, Sondheim had respect for Styne, thought he captured the right atmosphere in the music for the show, and undoubtedly learned a trick or two from that collaboration.

His disaster collaboration was with none other than the great Richard Rodgers in the writing of Do I hear a Waltz? in 1964. This came on the heels of "two successful" musicals for which Sondheim wrote both lyrics and music, the commercially successful A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1962 and the artistically successful (but commercial failure) Anyone Can Whistle in 1964 which, although it closed after only nine performances, was another great learning experience for the young artist, preparing him for greater successes in the future. The title song from Anyone Can Whistle is also one of my own personal favorites and when I play it on the piano I almost feel is if I am practicing a yoga exercise, "It's all so simple: / Relax, let go, let fly. / So someone tell me why / Can't I?" Some, according to Sondheim, thought this particular song was autobiographical, to which Sondheim replies, "To believe [this song] is my credo is to believe that I'm the prototypical Repressed Intellectual and that explains everything about me. Perhaps being tagged with a cliché shouldn't bother me, but it does, and to my chagrin I realize it means that I care more about how I'm perceived than I wish I did. I'd like to think this concern hasn't affected my work, but I wouldn't be surprised if it has." How's that for frankness?

In any case, back to his collaboration with Richard Rodgers, something he took on at the request of the, then, dying Oscar Hammerstein, and as a means to make a "ton of money" after the flop of Anyone Can Whistle. It was, as he admits, an act of self-deception, it made him "feel noble to sublimate my need to write music in order to support his [Hammerstein's] forlornly abandoned partner...Warmed by the personal aspects of the venture and rationalizing the right and left, I agreed to write the lyrics, as wrongheaded a decision as I've ever made." Sondheim found Rodger's creative abilities were failing him and once he wrote music for a piece he refused to alter any of it for the lyrics. It was a spiritless collaboration and as Sondheim says it "was not a bad show, merely a dead one." So with the failure of a work he loved, Anyone Can Whistle, and the failed collaboration of Do I Hear a Waltz, Sondheim began his voyage into a brilliant career as "I learned the only reason to write a show is for love -- just not too much of it."

His musical Company, which is about marriage, or perhaps more aptly, about the potential misery of marriage, is one of my favorites and I have a coincidental personal connection with it as well as it opened on the same day as my second marriage. Also, the main character's name is Robert, and I play most of the music from Company on the piano, with the notable exception of "Getting Married Today" which is technically demanding and is best heard sung. Sondheim points out the irony that all his training under Hammerstein to write an integrated book musical had to be rethought for this show as it is an ensemble production, with the music having to comment on the subject, and not necessarily advancing the plot. Also, it required Sondheim to interpret the intricacies of a subject he had not personally experienced: marriage. He had to interview Richard Rodgers daughter, Mary, to acquire "secondhand experience" on the subject.

What emerged is a brilliant collection of characters and songs, perfect for the subject and the cynical 70s. I was happy to learn that Sondheim's favorite version of the musical is the same one as ours, the 2006 production staring Raul Esparza. All the characters play musical instruments in this production and Esparza as I recall had to learn to play the piano to accompany himself when singing my favorite piece from the show, "Being Alive." The entire show is a remarkable performance which is available on DVD. Again, in a self-effacing mood, Sondheim confesses the following about the show: "Chekhov wrote, 'If you're afraid of loneliness, don't marry.' Luckily, I didn't come across that quote till long after Company had been produced. Chekhov said in seven words what it took George [Furth, the writer of "The Book"] and me two years and two and a half hours to say less profoundly. If I'd read that sentence, I'm not sure we would have dared to write the show, and we might have been denied the exhilarating experience of exploring what he said for ourselves." (Disclaimer: I don't agree with Chekhov!)

In 1971 he followed up Company with another musical with a loose plot, Follies. It is Sondheim's tribute to the subject he loves the most, Broadway history and Follies allowed him "to imitate the reigning composers and lyricists from the era between the World Wars....What made these songwriters imitable was that most of them had a style independent of whatever show they were writing. Just as you can listen to almost any piece by Chopin without ever having heard it before and still know that it's Chopin, so it is with Arlen, or Gershwin, as well as with a lyric by W.S. Gilbert or Harburg or Porter or Hart, at least the lyrics they wrote once they'd found their voices." Follies has that great show-stopper, "I'm Still Here" as well as one of the most cynical pieces ever written on the subject of marriage: "Could I Leave You?"

But so much of the value of Finishing the Hat is Sondheim's observations about his contemporaries. Of course he pays homage to his "unsung collaborators" over the years, people such as Arthur Laurents and George Furth just to name a few, and then there are his accolades and criticisms of the composers and lyricists, and he frequently doesn't hold any punches:

Leonard Bernstein: "taught me by example..[and] there were other musical things that I learned from Lenny by osmosis...Many of the lyrics from West Side Story suffer from a self-conscious effort to be what Lenny deemed 'poetic.'"
Frank Loesser: "A master of conversational lyrics....Most impressive...the ideas behind his songs."
Alan Jay Lerner: "Smooth, appropriate lyrics but merely pleasant...No discernable style or personality." (Although Sondheim acknowledges that My Fair Lady was the most entertaining musical he's ever seen, except his own!)
Oscar Hammerstein II: "An earthy, optimistic lyricist...Sometimes gets carried away by 'pretty' words instead of accurate ones."
E.Y Harburg: "Often preoccupied with linguistic playfulness that is at its best charming and inventive."
Lorenz Hart: His writings were" jaunty but melancholy, forceful but vulnerable..verbally nimble, full of humor, and a lazy craftsman."
Ira Gershwin: "Often undone by his passion for rhyming, for which he sacrifices both case and syntax." Sondheim speculates that his obsession "to invent and dazzle" was an attempt to "bridge the gap" with his genius brother.
Irving Berlin: "Naturally colloquial lyrics that were deceptively simple."
Cole Porter: "Most immediately recognizable lyrics...Technically, in both music and lyrics, no one is better than Porter and few are his equals."
Dorothy Fields: "Leading exponent in her generation of the truly colloquial lyricists...Dorothy needed someone like Kern or Arlen or McHugh -- more openly emotional composers."
Noel Coward. Compares him unfavorably to Porter. Porter's "music is notably more inventive and colorful than Coward's." In their lyrics, "both make sport of the haut monde, but Porter does it with fondness, Coward with disdain."

Those are but a few of Sondheim's "attendant comments..heresies, grudges, whines and anecdotes.". He frequently devotes whole sections to his predecessors and contemporaries in Finishing The Hat and of course there will be others to follow in the succeeding pages. If that in itself is not worth the "price of admission," Finishing The Hat is also a fine example of the art of the book, and why a Kindle cannot replicate the look and feel of good book craftsmanship. It is an oversize format so the lyrics and text can occupy three columns and to accommodate numerous illustrations, musical handwritten scores by Sondheim, lyrics both typed and handwritten and edited with the author's notes, and photographs from the productions of his shows. I was intrigued by his thought process, working out lyrics as shown on facsimiles of his yellow legal pad notes. He even goes into detail regarding his writing habits (in a footnote) about how he bought a life time supply of a special pencil with reversible erasers, ones which are flat and can't roll off a table, as well as a 32 line yellow legal pad ("allowing alternate words to be written above one another without crowding or wasting space"). Sondheim's eye for detail is omniscient.

The book is beautifully designed, printed on a high opacity stock that reminds me of the Warren Patina paper I used in my production days in publishing, when the esthetics of the book were paramount. My one minor criticism of the design is the lyrics are not as easy to read as they are juxtaposed to Sondheim's commentary text which is in bold.

Sondheim ends Finishing The Hat with "Intermission" and likewise, this entry ends on the same note.

Friday, December 10, 2010

She's Quick on the Trigger

With targets not much bigger than the president's deficit commission. I don't think I've ever actually READ anything by Sarah Palin, although I've seen her paraded before TV cameras, so it was with some interest that I noted "her" opinion column in the Wall Street Journal, Why I Support the Ryan Roadmap; Let's not settle for the big-government status quo, which is what the president's deficit commission offers.

I had expected a folksy take on the topic in keeping with her TV persona, perhaps sprinkled with homey references to Alaska wildlife, or more aptly the disappearing wildlife when Sarah Oakley has her high-powered rifle with telescopic sight at her side, but instead was greeted by a more or less professionally written piece of journalism, quite possibly with the help of the people at News Corp which owns the WSJ and also owns Fox which in turn employs Ms. Palin. She or her ghost writer is "disappointed" in the deficit commission's recommendations but commends the commission for exposing "the large and unsustainable deficits that the Obama administration has created through its reckless 'spend now, tax later' policies." I go speechless when reading such an accusation, feeling like Melville's Billy Budd confronting the evil Claggett. Sarah, do you really believe what "you" wrote? Not only are the deficits at least partially shared by your Party (not to mention the National Debt most of which could be pinned on the Bush era), but Congress now has the opportunity to roll back some of the tax forgiveness for the super wealthy, both in terms of incremental tax rates and the inheritance tax, and your Party is stonewalling that prospect. However, pardon my impertinence, "a man never trifles / with gals who carry rifles...Annie Get Your Gun.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Rebels Without a Cause?

It was a "chicken-run" by the Republicans and the Democrats, drag-racing to the edge of the Bush Tax Cliff as the sun was setting, but who really bailed out of the car and who remained will be revealed in two years. In the movie, the adversaries, Jim (played by James Dean) and Buzz, check out the abyss of the cliff before climbing into their cars:

Buzz: This is the edge. That's the end.
Jim: Yeah. It certainly is.
Buzz: You know something? I like you. You know that?
Jim: Why do we do this?
Buzz: You got to do something, now don't you?

And that seems to be the nature of the "deal" between the two parties: "You got to do something, now don't you?" On the surface, President Obama caved in. Someone had to and it was pretty clear the Republicans were prepared to fly off the cliff to preserve the precious Bush tax cuts for "everyone," especially for the wealthiest, the old Razzle Dazzle 'em of trickle-down economics.

We now continue the drag race to the same cliff in two years but this one also includes the Presidential election. If the "compromise" just further expands the deficit without creating meaningful jobs, the Democrats will blame the Republicans who will be left in the car. Of course the American people will be in the passenger's seat. "This is the edge. That's the end."

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Dueling Headlines

No sooner after writing the last entry of this same date, these two headlines from AP accosted my in box:

AP Extended unemployment benefits for nearly 2 million Americans begin to run out Wednesday, cutting off a steady stream of income and guaranteeing a dismal holiday season for people already struggling with bills they cannot pay. Unless Congress changes its mind, benefits that had been extended up to 99 weeks will end this month

AP GOP says it'll block bills until tax cuts extended. "While there are other items that might ultimately be worthy of the Senate's attention, we cannot agree to prioritize any matters above the critical issues of funding the government and preventing a job-killing tax hike."

Translation: if the peasants have no bread, let them eat cake! Translation for "job-killing tax hikes" for those in the highest income bracket: trickle-down economics with no basis in fact.

This was exactly my fear after the mid-term elections: If the Republicans and Tea Partiers interpret their gains to mean they now have carte blanche to keep the Bush tax cuts for the highest wealth tier -- people who would not be hurt by some roll back to pre-Bush tax levels -- the result will only increase the deficit further.

More posturing at our country's expense.

Cheery Tidings from the Social Security Administration

For the second year in a row, this happy news from the SSA, received in the mail yesterday: "Your Social Security benefits are protected against inflation. By law, they increase when there is a rise in the cost of living. The government measure changes in the cost of living through the Department of Labor's Consumer Price Index (CPI). The CPI has not risen since the last cost-of-living adjustment was determined in 2008. As a result, your benefits will not increase in 2011."

What a country, retirees are protected from the ravages of inflation, and, better news, yet, there is no inflation! Hooray! There is certainly no inflation in interest rates from CDs, that's well documented. Thank you, The Federal Reserve!

Of course the SSA's Cola adjustments are made through the most bizarre calculation. Sounds like a lot of sleight of hand, but here is an explanation.

It is interesting to review how the CPI gets measured and how such measurements might distort what inflation seniors really face. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index the prices of certain items have actually declined over the last year, specifically Window Drapes (8.00%), Peanut Butter (5.10%), Bedroom Furniture (5.00%), Dishes (4.40%), and Sports Equipment (4.00%). But, with the notable exception of Peanut Butter which many seniors may have resorted to consuming, these items are probably not frequently among their purchases. On the other hand, let's look at some of the offsetting increases: Funerals +2.20%, Dental Services +2.80%, Nursing Homes +3.50%, Physicians Services +3.50%, Prescription Drugs +3.90% and Hospital Services +9.30%

No inflation for seniors? Ha. Also, for a quick peek into the future, let's review the past: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the purchasing power of a 1984 dollar is now $.458 while a 1967 dollar is only $ .153.

No doubt entitlement programs need to be looked at along with taxes to get our fiscal house under control, but inflating away the dollar and playing shell games with Social Security is what happens when Congress cannot agree on anything and political posturing is all our representatives seem to be able to do. We've become a sound bite democracy.

Meanwhile, on another, but related topic, the essay du jour is Bill Gross' latest, with his conclusion saying it all: "The United States in short, needs to make things not paper, but that is not likely unless we see a policy revolution in Washington DC. In the meantime, our unemployed will continue to fill out forms and stand in line. We’re living here in Allentown."