Tuesday, June 2, 2020

The Inevitable Year of Reckoning, a Year That Never Was

A contradictory heading.  How can both be true?  How can a year be and not be, or should not have been but is?

The answer lies in one’s perspective, and as I am now entering the outfield of old age, the game has been called.  It’s a matter of simple math.  Removing a year from your life when you’re approaching 80 represents a huge fraction of one’s remaining life.  So, waiting for COVID-19 to abate or to be solved is tantamount to a kind of purgatory, a state of being between life and death.

Purgatory implies some kind of judgement.  I’d say we are among the fortunate who can afford to stay in our house, surrounded by our books and streaming choices of theatre and  music, and for me my precious piano,  Judgement day is looking up, if you believe in religious fabrication.  I don’t; and have always argued that we make our own heaven or hell right here and now.

At first we hung onto every word of Dr. Fauci, for guidance and for any hopeful signs of a vaccination.  Any good news would release us, the most vulnerable, from being confined to our home.  Instead, what we feared, a therapeutic and better yet, a vaccination, will be a long time coming.

Ok, “normal” life will continue without us.  As “reopening” occurred, we watched boats pass by our house, their Trump flags flying, celebrating reverence for their King releasing them from bondage, going right back to their previous ways of ignoring social distancing, just making it more dangerous for the rest of us, but, hey, it’s their “freedom” not ours.

Until the thunderbolt of America’s original sin struck in Minneapolis of all places.  Racism, lack of opportunity, income inequality, white privilege, police violence, and the message that black lives really don’t matter, came crashing down on the country’s collective conscience with the murder of just one black person, George Floyd, by an imperious white policeman, Derek Chauvin, filmed for all the world to see.  The country burst into the same Chicago flames as in 1968 after Martin Luther King’s assassination.  Then too we had another elephant in the room, the Vietnam War which had fomented its own trauma.  There were also the Watts Riots of 1965, involving the police and a black man and they foreshadowed the 1992 LA riots which were sparked by the arrest and beating of Rodney King, all of which was filmed.  Cell phones were not around then, but a TV cameraman captured the gruesome details.

But the killing of the seemingly gentle giant George Floyd was different.  It came soon after filmed killings either by police or white vigilantes of other blacks and, over the past years hundreds, more like them.  It came after Dylann Roof’s mass murder in a Charleston black Baptist Church.  It came immediately after the filmed confrontation of a black man who was bird watching in Central Park and a white woman who felt entitled to call the police when he asked her to put her dog on a leash in an area where birds were protected.  But she chose to turn the call into a racial one, saying "I'm taking a picture and calling the cops, I'm going to tell them there's an African American man threatening my life."  It was an open invitation for the police to take action which would not have been justified.  The mere fact that he was black gave the woman a sense of entitlement, the power, to make such a call.  Had she had a gun and was in Florida she might have shot him and been vindicated under its racially charged “Stand Your Ground” law.  It reveals the basis of a problem which has existed forever in this country, remaining unaddressed.

We all know the systemic basis for it all and this country’s failure to do anything while propping up the stock market to benefit the few is a sin.
Its failure to address gun control is just another, but related, sin. 

Its failure to invest in education as part of the long term solution overarches the entire topic. 

Hopelessness breeds a certain kind of despair which can burst into flames when a match is thrown into the kindling.  But this is no mere match, as the video of the white policeman shows him kneeling on the neck of this poor man, suffocating the life out of him, the half shit grin knowing he was being filmed, the casual hand in the pocket.  It had the characteristics of the hunter proudly dominating his dead prey.  Like the ones of the Trump brothers grinning over their dead leopard, elk, elephant, or endangered sheep, the same shit eating grin of domination by gun or authority.

Many knew that with the election of a sociopathic reality TV star a Trumpocalypse might result.  Being so close to the election now, I was starting to think we might escape with merely part of our world being dismantled but COVID-19 gave him another way to pursue his egotistical ends, forcing himself into our homes each day with frequent preposterous claims about the virus, not giving the experts the floor, and refusing to wear a mask although that is the guidelines our health experts advocated.  Nothing applies to him and it makes him look weak.  One must wonder how he felt when he had to be taken to the bunker in the White House because of protests.

Well, he decided, I’ll look strong by clearing a way to St. John's Church across the park from the White House to pose for photos holding up a bible, as if he has spent his Sundays in church.  If this photo op meant pepper spraying protestors or using rubber bullets against them, so be it.  He wants us to know he’s a tough guy.  It invites commentary, the absurdity and the arrogance of it all and it would be funny if it were not so tragic, that that is the action our “President” thinks meaningful in light of this wake up moment in our history.

It is more than ironic that George Floyd’s brother, Terrence Floyd, was the one who took the conciliatory Presidential fork in the road, exhorting the crowds to not turn to violence and looting, urging protests in a peaceful way to honor his brother.  He also asked that the crowds turn to the voting booth to make their voices heard.  "Educate yourselves. Don't wait for somebody else to tell you who's who, educate yourself and know who you're voting for. That's how we're going to help. It's a lot of us! ... Let's switch it up and do this peacefully.''

Trump, meanwhile took the low road, urging the Governors of those States to “dominate” with force, warning that if they didn’t do it, he’d call up the military.  He said "I’m your president of law and order.''

It would have been an ideal opportunity for a normal President of the United States to show empathy, compassion, urging Congress to bring a bill to his desk to ensure a massive investment in education and in the short term economic relief for the most poverty stricken and unemployed.  But we know that this President was not born with an empathic bone in his body, only bone spurs.

He is like CV19 itself.  It knows nothing about empathy and only “thinks” of its own existence by replicating through infecting others.  It is not an “equal opportunity” infector, more seriously impacting those without access to good diets and medical care as well us elderly.  It ruins lives.  It kills.  And once a large number of unprotected citizens are infected, it leads to disastrous societal and economic consequences. Trump’s strong-arm behavior only exacerbates an already incendiary situation.  I fear it will worsen.

Yet, this is our moment to stand in solidarity with all people of color, to work towards an election of bringing people to Congress who will work together to find solutions to the systemic problem of racism and income disparity and full employment for all.  If we can afford to go to Mars, we can afford to do this. And it is time to remove the virulent President.  Indeed, make this a year of reckoning, one that might have been a year that never was, but now can count for something constructive.

Thursday, May 21, 2020


A labor of love over many years Explaining It to Someone: Learning From the Arts has been published and is available from Amazon in paperback at $18.95.  For those more digitally inclined, there is also a $3.99 Kindle edition.
The book’s very detailed Table of Contents serves as an index to the hundreds of writers, playwrights, songwriters, musicians, and performances that are described or reviewed.

The book began with the writing of this blog itself.  As a publisher, I have always been interested in good writing and meaningful reading but never imagined that I would have the creative juices to write myself, in particular the freedom from self censorship.  A writer’s life is not private, even if writing only fiction.  This blog was a liberating factor as it offered a platform for the discipline needed to write. 

I was particularly influenced by a book I read long before, Brenda Ueland’s, If You Want to Write; A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit, first published in 1938.  She threw down the gauntlet for me: “At last I understood that writing was about this: an impulse to share with other people a feeling of truth that I myself had. Not to preach to them, but to give it to them if they cared to hear it. If they did not – fine. They did not need to listen. That was all right too…. You should work from now on until you die, with real love and imagination and intelligence, at your writing or whatever work it is that you care about. If you do that, out of the mountains that you write some mole hills will be published…. But if nothing is ever published at all and you never make a cent, just the same it will be good that you have worked.”

I emphasize the last few words as they encapsulate my life.  To me it was not good enough to be the passive recipient of the cultural advantages I had in my life.  I felt compelled to share them, analyze them, say what they meant to me, and convey my unabashed exhilaration.

What I cover in Explaining It to Someone is eclectic to be sure.  It’s easier in many ways to deal with the works of a single writer.  Most of the work is related by the tether of my life experiences.  And, this is what distinguishes it from other works of criticism; I often relate it to personal experiences and the times.  These are times we all share.

When I read James Salter’s All That Is several years ago, the seeds of my (now) two published books were planted.  I ruminated over Salter’s epigram from this, his final novel, written thirty years after his last published work:

There comes a time when you
realize that everything is a dream
and only those things preserved in writing
have any possibility of being real

This made such an impression on me that I adopted his epigram for Explaining It to Someone as well. Yes, I said to myself, it is all well and good that I write this blog, but as a publisher, with deep roots in print editions, the digital world seems ephemeral.  Not that I have illusions that by appearing in print my writings magically become long-lived.  But they were NOT a dream, they ARE real and it is GOOD that I have worked.  It seemed inevitable that this volume, in particular, find its way to print (although editing concessions were made, and a Kindle edition exists as well).  
Although it is a companion work to my previously published Waiting for Someone to Explain It: The Rise of Contempt and Decline of Sense, it stands on its own.   Waiting for Someone is all things political and economics, borne out of frustration and disillusion, while Explaining It to Someone was written with passion about the arts.

It is ironic that I have chosen the non-traditional publishing route.  I did not see the commercial prospects of successfully landing this with a trade publisher or even a small press.  And I did not want constraints as to length, organization and content.  The irony about using the Amazon publishing platform is at one time during my publishing days, I dealt with Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon when he was on his way up in the mid 1990’s (or perhaps I should say, up, up, and away!).

Little did I know that 25 years later they would become my publishing platform and Bezos the richest man in the world; unthinkable, and just over the last third of my life.

Using their platform and making your book professional requires either learning publishing software or hiring an intermediary to generate the two files that are necessary, one for on demand physical books and the other for the Kindle.  (Again, another irony not lost on me is a 1984 issue of Publishers’ Weekly carried an article on my vision for printing on demand).  I could learn the software, many people do, and if I was younger and wanted to spend precious time, that would have been my preferred route.  Instead I hired a company that specializes in the conversion process, BooknookBiz.  They have been very professional and I have a nice relationship with the owner, “Hitch.”  I enjoy our banter back and forth, her up to date digital knowledge vs. my circa 1960 -1970 production knowledge, the days when I was a “production guy.”

They initially estimated the present book would set out to 714 7 x 10” pages, way, way too large for me.  That’s when my antiquated production knowledge was brought to bear on the problem, resulting in an acceptable compromise, still a large book, 516 pages 6 x 9” and densely set, but readable. This relationship was reminiscent of the time when I handled printing and binding vendors, mostly in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Gone, gone are those days, but the memory lingers on.

The manuscript for this book went through three different editing passes before it was even submitted for conversion, and a major organizational effort (many thanks to my wife, Ann for her enduring help and insight).  In some respects it has the characteristics of a reference book because of the detailed table of contents. The more challenging post conversion issues were with the Kindle edition’s content page hyperlinks “landing” on the right spot in the 245,000 word text.

This might be the last book I write or the penultimate one, as I am thinking more about fiction and memoir perhaps in a couple of years if time and health are good to me, problematic given age and the pandemic, the latter being the stuff of dystopian science fiction only a few months ago. 

What I have to say in this book will be the formative foundation of any I might tackle in the future.  Indeed, most of the writers and musical artists I cover in Explaining It to Someone; Learning From the Arts are my teachers and I am their grateful and humble student.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Virus Vexation and Our 50th Wedding Anniversary

COVID-19 has upended everyday life and worse, a tragedy for those who are sick and dying, their families, as well as leaving so many without income or resources.  It is ruthless and random. I could write pages and pages about our country’s lack of preparation for a pandemic, or the delay in taking action because of denial.  But, this is not the entry for that and it is well covered by our finest journalists.  I’m thankful for a free press. And heartfelt thanks to our healthcare professionals and the army of workers who have been marginalized and now stand at the front lines, our truck drivers, grocery workers, postal and delivery people. 

For us, as for so many others, it has meant more (thus far) about putting our life on hold.  It exposes the little things we take for granted, a visit with friends or family, a dinner at a neighborhood restaurant, or deferring the pleasures of theatre and musical performances. Will it ever come back to the normal we once knew?  Perhaps slowly, but in the meantime it has ravaged our way of life.  It is particularly disheartening at our age.  How much more time will we be granted and what will the quality of life be?

At this stage of life, every moment with family and friends and community is particularly precious. Shared experience is far more important than anything else. Face Time, Zoom and Facebook can never replace human contact.

This week was supposed to be a very special occasion for us, flying to NYC to be with our “kids,” Jonathan and his wife Tracie, and Chris and his significant other, Megan.  The four of them had surprised us with tickets for us all to see the revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, on our 50th Wedding Anniversary, April 26. The show will also celebrate its own 50th Anniversary on the very same day. What are the chances?

It is perhaps my favorite show of all time.  When Ann and I first saw the show, I was immediately captivated by the premise of Company, particularly as the main character is “Bobby,” my wife’s nickname for me.  No, I didn’t have the same conflicts as my namesake, but as a New York City “boy,” Sondheim’s urbane, sophisticated Company, and its innovative ensemble approach resonates with me. It was my second marriage and “Being Alive” is exactly the way I felt, although there was some apprehension, as expressed in “Sorry-Grateful” (my YouTube rendition of that song made a few years ago can be heard here). 

What a major disappointment we will miss seeing Company with our kids on our special day.  But all these years we’ve had Sondheim for entertainment, consolation, and insight into human nature and with such innovative, beautiful music. Perhaps that is a fair trade. Thank you Stephen Sondheim; you enriched our lives.

And my own life is so infinitely richer by being married to my soul-mate, Ann.  We are simpatico in so many ways, even where we’re totally opposite, her puzzle pieces perfectly fitting mine.  I dedicate my recent YouTube performance of “Being Alive” to her.  Ann, you helped me “come through” and “I’ll always be there.”

Somebody, crowd me with love, / Somebody, force me to care, / Somebody, make me come through, / I'll always be there, / As frightened as you, / To help us survive / Being alive, / Being alive, / Being alive!

And thanks to our sons who endeavored to bring us all together for our 50th Wedding Anniversary.  That’s what life is all about, isn’t it?  We’ve got company! 

Circling back to the opening paragraph, may you and yours stay well, and stay safe, six feet apart!

Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Show Goes On! – Maltz’s Streaming Production of ‘How to Succeed in Business’

Dance number from Maltz's production of How To Succeed in Business

Here I thought my days as a reviewer would be on a long hiatus but as a Maltz subscriber we were invited to see a streaming version of their about-to-open musical, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying by Frank Loesser.  As the show was already scheduled to go into previews but had to be postponed, instead the musical was staged with a four-camera setup, and a skeletal audience (presumably mostly Maltz staff) “giving patrons a thrilling and unique perspective of the musical just as it was performed.” While this limited streaming event ends March 29, the show itself will be rescheduled and all ticket holders will be given the opportunity of seeing it live.

Although we have seen “live” performances of musicals on TV, quite recently PBS’ repeat broadcast of the enjoyable 2015 English version of Sound of Music, this is my first attempt to review a streamed show.  Streaming may be part of the permanent future of the theatre, not that it will shut the doors of live performances – it never will – but I’m all in favor of streaming the productions of regional theatres on a pay per view basis, giving us the opportunity to see regional performances we cannot otherwise attend. But there are complicated permissions and union arrangements to make that happen.  Credit goes to Maltz for solving those obstacles on short notice, albeit for limited distribution.

The COVID-19 crisis is going to change everything, permanently, perhaps some of it for the better, such as streaming of regional production as suggested above.  But societal change, especially in its attitudes towards work and sexism, was already well underway.  

One of the most changed environments already is indeed the office.  The Maltz production is a classic Frank Loesser musical which satirizes office life in the 1960s.  Office life doesn’t quite exist that way anymore but it is still an intense social environment.  COVID-19, and the resulting quick adaption of companies having many of their office employees work from home, is going to make further inroads into what once occupied most of our working hours.

'Coffee Break' from How to Succeed in Business
So, it is ironic that rather than seeing and poking fun at the office of the past, on a live stage, we can now watch live stage in the comfort of our homes. Which brings up another interesting topic, how different is it from a filmed version?  The answer to that question could probably fill a book, but a filmed version endeavors to capture verisimilitude, whereas the taping of a stage version has all the earmarks of live theatre other than that important missing link of the interaction between actors and the audience, one feeding off the other.  In other words, bring me live theatre any day BUT when that is impossible, bring me streaming.

Frank Loesser was cast off by his family – his older brother a concert pianist – as they deemed Tin Pan Alley an unsuitable profession for their son.  After failing to write hit songs, he migrated to Hollywood and eventually became one of the most prolific studio songwriters, writing so many memorable songs now classics in The Great American Songbook, such as “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You,” “Heart and Soul,” “On a Slow Boat to China,” “Two Sleepy People,”“Baby, It’s Cold Outside,”“No Two People,” and “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year”

He only wrote four Broadway musicals, with, of course, his best known work being Guys and Dolls, arguably one of the best musicals ever.  How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961) was written towards the end of his career.  By then he was considered one of the giants of Broadway’s “Golden Age.”

I remember seeing the movie version in the late 1960s with Robert Morse, enjoyable but not really memorable.  So I was looking forward to seeing Maltz’s stage version, knowing how well this theatre group does with precisely this kind of musical.

Indeed, the streaming version breathes much needed life into the work with such great enthusiasm (film is incomparable). The choreography by Rommy Sandhu (known for work regionally across the country and on and off Broadway) brought out much of the humor in all the numbers especially “Coffee Break,” "A Secretary is Not a Toy, and "Paris Original.” He was assisted by Dennis O’Bannion who was in the ensemble and served as Dance Captain. The dancing and twenty one very talented actors /singers under the astute direction of Andy Sandberg (an award-winning director, writer, and Tony®-winning producer), make Maltz’s production a hit.

Sam Bolen as J. Pierrepont Finch
The play traces the rise of J. Pierrepont Finch, who follows a handbook that shows him how to climb the corporate ladder from window washer to the Chairman of the Board of the World Wide Wicket Company.  Sam Bolen is infectiously loveable as Finch with great comic timing and pleasant voice.  The “handbook’s” voice over is by a local TV meteorologist, Glenn Glazer, who added that perfect authoritative instruction to Finch and for the audience’s enjoyment.

Finch’s love interest, secretary Rosemary Pilkington, is dazzlingly played by Clara Cox, with a voice and personality to match the best on Broadway.  One is just mesmerized by her presence in any of her scenes.  I loved her number, ironically entitled (because of COVID-19), “New Rochelle,” in which she fantasizes about married life to Finch.

Clara Cox as Rosemary Pilkington
Chuck Ragsdale, Sam Bolen,
Blake Zolfo
Supporting roles without exception were robust but special mention goes to Blake Zolfo who portrays Finch’s nemesis, Bud Frump, who also happens to be the nephew of the boss, aptly named J.B. Biggley who is hilariously played by Johnnie Hawkins.  JB’s mistress, Hedy La Rue is performed in classic dumb dizzy dame style by Leslie Donna Flesner.

Interestingly, this is one of the few musicals in which there is no real love song, the closest being Rosemary’s reprise of “I Believe In You,” heavenly sung by Clara Cox.  But it is first sung by J. Pierrepont to himself in the mirror of the men’s room while his male coworkers are standing at the urinal their backs to the audience in shadow.  It underscores the satiric nature of most of the songs in the show, but the great Frank Loesser, with the perfect marriage of music and lyrics, makes the other songs memorable, such as "Company Way," "Brotherhood of Man," "A Secretary is Not a Toy, " and of course “I Believe In You.”

Scenic designer Adam Koch’s work and sound designer’s Marty Mets are adequate for this streaming version and probably more impressive when the live production is staged. Lighting designer Kirk Bookman was at a disadvantage as this was really a preview production and probably spots and actor’s placement were not yet in sync and were not designed for cameras zooming in. But all in all the tech team did great work on short notice and for a different medium. 

Outstanding period costumes by Leon Dobkowski give the show an authentic sixty’s look while musical director Eric Alsford’s eight person orchestra is Broadway quality.

This was a very successful and unexpected streaming experience and kudos to Andrew Kato and his team for making this happen and bringing some respite from the horror of COVID-19 through LIVE theatre.

Photos by Zak Bennett