Sunday, August 23, 2015

Hamilton Hip Hops into Broadway History

Ann and I once again boarded the New Haven train to NYC, this time to see Hamilton.

It’s everything that has been written and said about the show, probably the most talked about Broadway musical prior to its opening in history.  No sense repeating the story here about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s genius in putting together the most original Broadway musical since, perhaps, Oklahoma.  As with Oklahoma, Hamilton breaks all the rules, but similar to its predecessor, it uses dance, music, acting, and a fine “book” to move the action along.  The action is explosive, a constant pulse measuring the beginning of our nation, the meaning of compromise, and the contributions of immigrants, particularly the Caribbean born Hamilton.

This nation’s historical founders are played by minorities in period customs, singing history through the medium of rap and hip hop, where the copious dialogue springs to life.  There are very few speaking parts, and that factor as well as the staging, the subject of revolution, and some of the love songs hearken back to a previous transforming musical, Les Misérables.  The reminder of the latter in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work is omnipresent.  And like “Master of the House” there is a change of pace humorous song embedded in Hamilton as well, one sung by a foppish King George entitled “You’ll Be Back,” which contrasts with the hip hop in the show.  It was sung with such a recognizable Beatles’ beat that the audience erupted into instant laughter.  Nevertheless, the other music, even for old Rodgers and Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim fans, was memorable. Rap songs such as “My Shot” and “The Room Where it Happens” run like leitmotifs throughout the show and get under your skin (not that I could sing them or even play them on the piano).

If I had to sum up the musical in one word, it’s pure raw energy. Never a dull moment, with many emotional ones, particularly if one has an understanding of the beginnings of this nation, as well as cautionary inferences pertaining to our own times, it is the must see show of this season, and probably many to come.  We were fortunate to be able to get tickets months and months ago when we first heard about it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Time and Again – and Again

While An American in Paris transported me to post War II Paris, the glorious Gershwin music brought me back to a New York of another time, a segue to the next novel I selected from my “bullpen bookshelf,” Time and Again by Jack Finney.

Compared to Fortune’s Rocks, the novel I wrote about in a prior entry, this is lightweight as far as literature is concerned but a compelling read nevertheless.  It harkens back to the nascent roots of my reading life.  My parents were not readers, so I had to fend for myself.  As a teenager I discovered science fiction, particularly H.G. Wells and his classic, Time Machine.  His novels ultimately led to other SF writers such as Jules Verne, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov (with whom I briefly worked early in my career on a series of SF reprints).  Finney’s novel is science fiction, but it is also a mystery and romance novel as well, and most prominently, an historical portrayal of NYC in the early 1880’s. 

As some of the novel takes place around Gramercy Park, and lower Manhattan, it is evocative of my early working life: 100 Fifth Avenue during the summers of 1956 – 1964 for my father in his photography studio during my high school and college years, and from 1964 – 1970 at 111 Fifth Avenue, only three blocks from my father’s studio, my first job in publishing.  Those buildings were built soon after the era described in Finney’s novel.

The novel’s protagonist, Si Morley, is an illustrator for a magazine in 1970 (when the novel was written) and he is selected for a secret government project involving time travel.  No complicated machinery involved, but instead a clever conceit involving hypnosis and self-hypnosis, so the reader needs to merely suspend belief.

Needless to say, there are the obvious themes such as the danger of disturbing the past so as not to affect the present, and that is a fine line Si has to walk.  He makes multiple visits and has follow up debriefings from his government overseers.  His last visit becomes a more involved and revelatory one, his becoming more a person of the late 19th century and getting to know the people of the time, not as images of the long deceased, but real, living people.  When Finney deals with that, it gave me the chills.  These are the New Yorkers who passed through Ellis Island. 

Si catches a Third Avenue horse drawn bus, on a cold winter’s night in 1882:  Here in the Third Avenue car, my feet ankle-deep in dirty straw but still cold, toes a little numb, I caught a glimpse – through the window of the closed door ahead – of the driver as he drew back on the reins to bring the car to stop.  A middle-aged woman, her face as Irish as an anti-Irish cartoon on a back page of most any “Harper’s Weekly,” climbed aboard.  She wore a heavy knitted shawl over her gray hair that covered her shoulders too; she had no other coat; she carried a basket on one arm.  As she opened the door, the cold air rolling in and stirring the straw in the aisle, I heard the horse’s hoofs slipping and clattering for a purchase, heard the crack of the driver’s whip, and just a the door closed I saw the driver’s body move as he stamped his feet, hearing the muffled sound of it, and he suddenly turned real for me as I understood how cold he must be out there on that open platform.

And then the city, too, turned real, this car no longer a quaint museum piece of the future, but of the here and now:  solid, scarred, uncomfortable, dirty because the straw on the floor was stained with tobacco spit driven by a harassed overworked man and pulled by a badly treated animal.  It was cold out on that platform, I knew that, but I got up, walked up front, slid open the door, and stepped out pulling the door closed behind me.  I had to talk to this man. 

And indeed Si does, nearly freezing in the process, learning of the man’s struggle to make a living at $1.90 a day to support his wife and two children, working 14 hours a day.  The heart of the issue, which is also examined in Anita Shreve’s novel Fortune’s Rocks, is the extreme differences in social strata, still rife in our modern times.  Our families economic and class status still governs much of our future working lives, hard work being secondary. As the driver relates to Si: Nine tenths of the people in New York find scarcely a moment in their lives which they can call their own, and see mightily little but misery from one year’s end to the other.  How is it possible for me to thank God in my heart for the food he gives me for life, while every morsel I eat I earn with my toil and even suffering?  There may be Providence for the rich man, but every poor man must be his own Providence.  As for the value of life, we poor folks don’t live for ourselves at all; we live for other people.  I often wonder if the rich man who owns great block of stock in the road and reckons his wealth in the millions does not sometimes think, as he sits at his well-filled table and looks at the happy faces of his children, of the poor car driver who toil for his benefit for a dollar and ninety cents a day, and is lucky if he tastes meat twice a week and can give the little ones a home, warm clothes and blankets for the winter.   Could Dickens have said it better?

The guiding rule for Si during his time travel is “observe, don’t interfere.”  To do the latter is to possibly change the present, perhaps substantially.  Can the empathetic Si actually abide by the rule?  That is one of the mystery themes running through the novel. I’ll leave the ultimate answer to the reader, but suffice it to say, Time After Time is a compulsive read, especially for an old Sci-fi veteran like myself.  I found it particularly amusing, though, when Si finally returns to 1970 from his last round trip, the world he describes, one from 45 years ago, seems as foreign to me now as the 1880’s did to Si.  Change, one of the few things one can count on in life, in our hyper-cyber world seems to have taken on a geometric construct.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Fortune’s Rocks

One of the books that I squirreled away on the boat some time ago for ”summer reading” was Anita Shreve’s Fortune’s Rocks.  I keep a number of “emergency books” on our bookshelf in our dinette in case I “tire” from other summer reading I bring up from Florida.  I’ve been reading William Trevor’s short story collection, Selected Stories, interspersing Thomas McGuane’s new short story collection, Crow Fair, focusing on short stories with the hope I will learn more about the art of the short story so I can successfully carry forward my own stories (thus far, the osmotic learning method has failed as it’s difficult on the boat to concentrate on writing – it’s just much easier to read).  The Trevor collection has become increasingly maudlin and focused on rural Ireland, not that I mind either, but I felt I just needed a break.  Although McGuane’s collection provides a stark contrast to Trevor’s, his writing reminding me more of a cross between Raymond Carver’s short stories and Sam Shepard’s plays, I needed a novel to break up the routine.  Anita Shreve to the rescue!

I’ve always admired Shreve, an Edith Wharton, in our midst.  She loves to write period pieces or contemporary ones set on the New England coast, but at the core of her works are affairs of the human heart -- I’m thinking of The Weight of Water, Body Surfing, and Sea Glass in particular.  Fortune’s Rocks is in that ensemble, a novel rich in 19th century language with Shreve’s unique eye to detail.  As she’s successfully done before, she writes this novel in the present tense, rendering the reader a sort of eavesdropper onto unfolding events.  She also juxtaposes the present tense narrative to the omniscient author’s eye, commenting on various social issues.

It is a page turner or perhaps I should say a page burner as it is reminiscent of a high brow Harlequin Romance.  It is the “steamiest” novel I’ve ever read by Shreve, particularly unusual given the late 19th century setting.  It is even shocking in some respects, not because of the language but because of the story in the context of the times.

Precocious fifteen year old Olympia Biddeford is the daughter of a prominent and wealthy Boston family who own a vacation cottage, formerly a commodious Convent, on the New Hampshire coast.  This well connected summer community at Fortune’s Rocks borders Ely Falls, a mill town where immigrant Franco—Americans toil away in noxious factories.  She and her parents arrive for their summer on the eve of her 16th birthday.  Olympia’s perspicacity has not escaped notice of her father, who has removed her from school and taken upon himself the extensive education of his daughter at home.  They are very close.

Shreve’s superlative prose sets the tone:  It is the late morning of the day of the summer solstice, and through an open window Olympia is trying to capture on her sketch pad the look of a wooden boat, unpainted, its sails old, a dirty ivory.  But she is not, she knows, terribly gifted as an artist and her attempts of rendering this boat are more impressionistic than accurate, the main purpose of her sketching being not so much to improve her drawing skills as to provide herself with an opportunity for idle thought.  For at this time in her life, Olympia is much occupied with the process of thinking: not constructive thinking necessarily, and nothing that will produce brilliant solutions to problems, but rather drift thinking, like dreaming, the thoughts moving randomly from one place to another, picking something up, looking at it, putting it down again, the way people move through shops.

But it is not only the maturation of her mind this summer, but the emergence of a woman from the body of a child.  In this regard, she meets one of her father’s married friends, John Haskell, a physician who is opening a clinic in Ely Falls, a progressive-minded man.  He is building a cottage in Fortune’s Rocks which he will soon occupy with his wife and children.

Without going into spoiler details, suffice it to say, one of the novels Olympia is reading that summer is Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.  Olympia and Haskell are enveloped in a relationship that has disastrous consequences, Olympia becoming utterly ostracized in an era that is intolerant of straying from social norms.  

The novel reads like a mystery in many respects.  It also reminded me a little of Dickens’ social commentary on the ills of 19th century mill life working conditions.  In fact, as much as the novel is about the coming of age of Olympia, it is about her growing awareness of the schism between the wealthy and working classes:   She watches a fisherman working from his boat not fifty feet off the rocks at the end of the lawn.  A not unfamiliar sight, the boat bobs in the slight chop while the man hauls in wooden pots from the bottom of the ocean.  The craft is a sloop, no, perhaps a schooner, laden with barrels of bait and catch – a charming sight, but testament only to a life more harsh than any Olympia has ever had to endure….Olympia had hardly ever given any thought to such men or to their families.  She has passed by the rude fish shanties from which the lobstermen work dozens of times, seeing the shacks and the boats themselves and even the men aboard them as mere backdrop to the true theater of Fortune’s Rocks, the life of the privileged summer colony at its leisure; when of course it is much the other way around, these farmers of the sea being the time-honored inheritors of the native beach and its environs.  And it strikes her again, as it has so often lately, how easy it is not to see what is actually there.

Ultimately, the novel brings these two worlds in direct conflict:  the Franco-Americans working in the mills of Ely Falls and Olympia’s, a clash of class and culture.

It is a testimony to Shreve’s ability to create a compelling architecture for her novel – not merely a passionate love story, but one told on a broader canvas of issues.  To say more is to reveal too much, but, for me, it was the perfect change of pace given the number of short stories I’ve been devouring.  I’ve picked up still another novel (more on that in a later entry) from my “bullpen” as I’m not ready to return to my short story education.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

An American in Paris in NYC

Last Sunday we ventured into the city to see An American in Paris.  Jonathan saw the preview in Paris of all places and gave us ample advance notice of how spectacular the production was and therefore we were able to buy tickets in the third row center many months ago, perfect seats for the most stirring Broadway musical we’ve seen in recent memory. 

From the South Norwalk train station we emerged into the light at 45th and Vanderbilt.  We had a luncheon reservation at one of our favorite restaurants, Orso’s (conveniently located in NYC’s Restaurant Row between 8th and 9th Avenues on 46th), one we’ve been to on and off during the past 30 years (especially Ann who used to do Wednesday matinees with friends while I toiled away at work : - )

Normally we would walk this, but Ann’s knee has been giving her trouble, so we agreed to “Uber” there and after the show walk back to Grand Central Station when traffic would be impossible anyway.  Uber is an amazing service.  Had a Lincoln Town car picking us up in four minutes and if it were not for the delays getting past 6th Avenue because of the Dominican Republic parade, it would have been a breeze.  Still, we made it in about 12 minutes.  I love the concept of no cash trading hands and getting an email two minutes after we exit the car of the cost ($9.23).

After a delicious lunch, trout for Ann and rigatoni in meat sauce for me (wanted something more hardy – this was to serve as both lunch and dinner), we walked over to the theatre which is on a Times Square I no longer recognize, throngs of people as usual but the panorama reminded me more of Las Vegas than my beloved New York City, packed with tourists of course with the most popular hawked item being those “selfie” sticks.  We’ve become a world of solipsistic hedonists,  selfies snap away and post them on Facebook, just about the most passive act of saying, “hey, look at me!”  So while everyone was clicking away pictures of themselves, with Times Square tumult in the background, I took a few “non-selfie” shots to document the moment and we made our way to the theatre, mobs of people --- mostly tourists it seemed (I seem to forget that is our status now : - ) trying to get into just one narrow entrance. 

Sitting alone on the stage before the performance began is an older grand piano, perhaps much like the one George Gershwin might have composed on.  And that is the conceit of the play – a composer being central to the action, Adam Hochberg (a.k.a Oscar Levant) movingly played by Brandon Uranowitz.  He composes a ballet for a woman he has fallen in love with, Lise Dassin, luminously performed by Leanne Cope.  Unfortunately for him, two other men are in love with her too, Jerry Mulligan (Robert Fairchild) and Henri Baurel (Max von Essen).  Because Lise and her family were harbored by Henri’s family during the Nazi occupation of Paris, she feels honor bound to accept his proposal although her heart has clearly been lost to the artist, Jerry, who fell in love with her at first glance.  All the action takes place in post WW II Paris and of course the “book” heavily relies on the movie version of An American in Paris.

In fact, the two leads could easily pass for the two movie leads.  Robert Fairchild, the principal dancer with NYC Ballet, credits the physicality of his dancing to his idol, Gene Kelly, and Leanne Cope is highly reminiscent of Leslie Caron.  But interestingly both Fairchild and Cope are luminaries in the world of ballet, not Broadway theatre.  It is remarkable to witness the transition – even their singing roles were of Broadway caliber.  Ann and I laughed when we heard someone say there was too much ballet in the production.  The dancing was superlative, breathtaking and from our vantage we could see every drop of sweat, and could feel the incredible energy that went into the play. As for the astounding performance by Fairchild, Ann could not stop raving about the perfection of his dancing, his grand jetes, his jazz movements and energy.

Ann was particularly interested in seeing Sara Esty, a talented young dancer she has enjoyed watching from her first performance with the Miami City Ballet when she joined the company several years ago along with her twin sister.  She auditioned and won a part in the Ensemble of this show enjoying the time spent in Paris and blogging about it.  Well to our surprise, we noticed in the Playbill that in addition to this being her Broadway debut; she has been chosen to dance the lead in place of Leanne Cope on the Wednesday matinees, surely an indication of how far along her career has progressed.  Robert Fairchild has substitutes as well for the Wednesday evening and Saturday matinee performances, so we were fortunate to see the leads at our Sunday matinee.

But for me, the heart, the very soul of the production is the music of George Gershwin.  I feel I have a special affinity for his music    -- much of it is the bulk of my more confident piano repertoire.  After hearing this production I’m tempted to play only Gershwin in the future, committing pieces to memory, learning how to play his music even better.

Unlike the film, the Broadway production is far ranging as far as his music is concerned, including pieces I don’t remember in the movie, such as parts of the “Cuban Overture” and many other Gershwin songs.  

An American in Paris is a massive undertaking, even on Broadway, a full orchestra, a large cast and striking, multiple sets.  The pace was intense under the brilliant direction and choreography of Christopher Wheeldon.  During intermission while Ann went to the ladies room, I texted Jonathan my thanks for pushing us to get tickets early, beginning my text with just two words.  “Intermission.  Fabulous.”  When Ann returned to her seat she said that she texted Jonathan.  I said I did too.  She said, here, look at what I wrote and it began with two words. “Intermission. Fabulous.”
6th Ave. after Dominican Day Parade