The Sound of [Snark and Occasional] Music

458557448_53b21164fe_z

Photo courtesy of flickr.com

The Sound of Music Live! Remember that from about a month ago? Any thoughts? You probably pondered a few, whether or not you caught NBC’s live telecast, but you definitely saw them by the score running helter skelter up and down various social media newsfeeds on the chilly evening of December 5th. An NBC soundstage was live with the sound of music, and not all of the notes were in tune. The production had some definite high notes:

  • The votes have been tallied and Audra McDonald’s “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” is now the definitive rendition of that song. How is it that ev’ry part she plays seems as if it was written explicitly for her? That’s talent.
  • Laura Benanti has been crowned the side-eye champion of the world. This might seem like a minute detail, but that twinkle of sarcasm made a character possibly perceived as outdated feel very contemporary.benanti51
  • There were some clever (though not flawless) transitions that perhaps tried to negotiate the disparities between theater and film, most clearly demonstrated by Derek McLane’s set design. For example, Maria’s departure from the house foyer to return to the abbey was a shifting wall. In this simple motion, it was acknowledged that the performance space was the same but kept the narrative running seamlessly. These transitions maintained the emotional dimension of the story while still moving it along.

Conversely, the production also had some notes that weren’t quite high enough:

  • While Ms. Underwood’s efforts at taking on a project outside of her comfort zone should be applauded, her singing voice was far too powerful for Maria, and, by awkward contrast, her speaking voice far too tame. Perhaps next time a supporting role to build some acting chops?
  • If choreography can be copyrighted, then “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” was shamelessly plagiarized from the ball sequence in Cinderella. Nit picky, yes, but it just happens to be the other Rodgers & Hammerstein musical in performance a mere few blocks away.
  • Speaking of Cinderella, the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization boasted that they kept the show within the R+H family by employing the orchestra from the Broadway production of Cinderella for the background orchestrations. As it was Thursday night and Cinderella had a date with her pumpkin and prince at the Broadway Theater, however, that meant that all the orchestrations for the telecast were prerecorded. A hoard of tens of people thus demanded that the special be renamed The Sound of Music Live-ish.
  • The telecast was directed by Beth McCarthy-Miller, who directed a large percentage of 30 Rock episodes and a number of Modern Family as well. An esoteric chamber of my being was therefore hoping she might be able to extract a little more humor from the show (especially because I’ve heard legend of how funny the original Maria, Mary Martin, was). But that shan’t be held against them.

And with that, I’m done talking. What has become the most compelling component of this broadcast is not the show itself, but rather the dialogue surrounding it.

somusicNothing can compare to the 1965 film adaptation of the musical, of course starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. Purists might go so far to argue that it is one of the most timeless building blocks of our American cultural identity. It has such a childhood resonance for most, and is an icon of both film and theater. This is no revelation. People young and old love a soaring Rodgers and Hammerstein melody, and that rogue nun teaching those seven whippersnappers a simple musical scale holds a nostalgic and absolute place in our collective memory. This thinking garnered the NBC telecast its celebrated ratings, but also lead to the barrage of skepticism and criticism before, after, but also very significantly during the live presentation.

Photo courtesy broadwayworld.com

Photo courtesy broadwayworld.com

As a theater aficionado with a self-proclaimed discerning eye for the art, I possess quite a fondness for the film and musical theater itself. I would normally approach a performance such as The Sound of Music Live! with a certain critical eye, but there is something very powerful happening in the world of mass media, thanks to social media. A factor of the social media phenomenon is the ability to read and participate in a real-time commentary on what people are collectively watching. Such a commentary is precipitated often by presidential debates, awards shows, the Super Bowl—event television, if you will. As everyone is watching, everyone is tweeting. Unfortunately what typically dominates the rhetoric is a somewhat ugly side of humanity. In an attempt to be funny, people express the some very rude, derisive, and just plain mean opinions. This isn’t always true, but especially for something like The Sound of Music Live! with as much—shall we say—room for criticism, this is certainly the case. As such, I watch and am cognizant of how I would ordinarily be critical, but alternatively a new empathy definitely emerges as I read what the sassy social media lads and lasses are snarking.

Jessica Molasky as Sister Berthe, Elena Shaddow as Sister Sophia, Audra McDonald as Mother Abbess, Christiane Noll as Sister Margaretta. Photo by: Will Hart/NBC.

Jessica Molasky as Sister Berthe, Elena Shaddow as Sister Sophia, Audra McDonald as Mother Abbess, Christiane Noll as Sister Margaretta. Photo by: Will Hart/NBC.

This is not to dismiss all criticism, of course. To a large extent, criticism serves as a necessary cultural barometer, and also proves that art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. This is also not to say people aren’t allowed their opinions. But this open-source criticism and ranting rather situates us in the new framework of how we watch television “together,” particularly as we watch what would typically be a piece of theater. In the theater, you sit in the dark, alone with your thoughts, perhaps only slightly jaded by what Ben Brantley has had to say. But with television, particularly through the enormous proliferation of reality television, we have grown accustomed to a constant commentary. If it’s not talking-head interviews, it’s disembodied, 140-character opinions. The real-life nature of the live show is reinforced by the real-time commentary, almost not allowing you to invest in the characters as characters, but rather deepening the disparity between the actor and his or her character, solidifying the event as pure performance and isolating it for harsher ridicule and commentary. It is no revelation to say that social media is democratizing cultural criticism, but is it improving it? The snowball effect of negativity alters the effectiveness and productivity of criticism, at least for those not helping roll the snowball. To extrapolate my point, I guess I’m asking Twitter to have a conscience, which is akin to asking if a tumor has a soul.

Stephen Moyer as Captain Von Trapp, Carrie Underwood as Maria. Photo by: Will Hart/NBC.

Stephen Moyer as Captain Von Trapp, Carrie Underwood as Maria. Photo by: Will Hart/NBC.

So now that Captain & Mrs. Von Trapp are safe and sound in Switzerland, I for one am very pleased NBC attempted such an endeavor and congratulate all involved on a great effort. While far from a perfect product, I was enthusiastic to watch, and entertained while doing so. Also, NBC created event television, which happens too infrequently in our world of increasingly fragmented media offerings. Those who saw last season’s Tony-winning Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike no doubt recall Vanya’s (played by David Hyde Pierce) turbulent Act Two rant about contemporary communication and entertainment, in which he touched on points that 1) society no longer has collectively shared experiences and 2) theater is no longer part of the popular consciousness. As a millennial, I found much of his diatribe to be somewhat reeking of golden-age nostalgia. But, to a degree, these particular points are incredibly valid, and while The Sound of Music Live! was not intentionally a response to this, it kind of was anyway. And I think for the better, nasty commentary be damned. Perhaps unexpectedly, comedian Billy Eichner said it most concisely in, yes, a tweet:

Screen shot 2013-12-22 at 12.11.32 AM

Okay, so that may have been graced with a slight twinge of snark, but Anne Hathaway deserves it after that cacophony of precocious award acceptance speeches for Les Misérables. However, the point is genuine. So in light of the criticism this production received from the new communication channels available to us, I leave you with a somewhat apropos quote by the character Anton Ego in the Pixar film Ratatouille:

anton-ego-tallIn many ways the role of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talents, new creations. The new needs friends.

In The Sound of Music Live!, some may have found “junk,” but perhaps we should be more prone to defend rather than attack “the new.” As perhaps a rebuttal, ABC aired the film The Sound of Music last Sunday night. I was unable to watch, but I wish I had been able to view, because I certainly would have with an ear atwitter.

Suggested wine pairing: Little Penguin’s Cabernet Merlot blend, because I’m 70% sure it’s what I drank to get me through the telecast with this uncharacteristically positive mindset. And, let’s be honest, no one took any of this that seriously.

Cinderella: “Glass slippers are so back,” depending on your shoe size

With pumpkin-festival season coming to an end, we need to talk about something before there are no more pumpkins left to turn into carriages. And thus, nine months after its premiere on Broadway, let’s chat about Cinderella. Poof!

*WARNING: This post contains spoilers about stunts performed in glass slippers, so read with caution and don’t try it at home.*

hero_home_top_tony

The “Cinderella story” is considered the “story book ending.” But with this revival production, it is best when between bookends. If you remember the televised versions in the 50’s and 60’s (or are the child of someone who does), Rodgers and Hammerstein’s earnest fairy tale score is the musical fabric of childhood—probably the one fairy tale whose non-Disney incarnation is even slightly well known. And now it’s been 56 years since its original televised premiere, and this production has appeared with the slogan “Glass slippers are so back,” begging the questions if they truly are, and, more so, if they should be…

Laura Osnes is the consummate princess. She is beautiful and talented, and she appears to be every bit as sweet and amiable as her character, as demonstrated by her Twitter account, because that is surely the measure of a true 21st-century princess. She is the current envy of Broadway (or at least mine anyway) as, eight times a week, she gets to perform this genius sartorial stagecraft by certified fairy godfather William Ivey Long:

Victoria Clark and Laura Osnes in Cinderella (but seriously, where does the hoop skirt come from?)

Victoria Clark and Laura Osnes in Cinderella, costumes by William Ivey Long.

Osnes starred as Sandy Dumbrowski in the 2007 revival of Grease!, causing much controversy due to her brunette hair. I bet she’s happy Disney isn’t producing this production of Cinderella and can now avoid such polemic scandal. Santino Fontana, although not the most obvious choice for the Prince, has been a favorite since last season’s Sons of the Prophet. His lack of Ken-doll looks certainly breaks the princely mold, but with his modern take on “princely”—with a sarcastic twinkle in his eye—it is difficult not to succumb to his charm.

Any fans of Frasier probably had a stroke when it was announced that Harriet Harris would be playing the Evil Stepmother—she really just had to be Bebe Glazer in a pannier and she could add another Tony to her crowded shelf of awards. But she is practically punished by Douglas Carter Beane’s new script, given the worst lines that not even her brilliant eye rolls could barrel through. Ann Harada, a usual comedic standout playing the eviler of the Evil Stepsisters, was the most disserviced by the clunky new script—the poor thing didn’t get to be beautiful or funny. But we’ll get to Mr. Beane’s villainous punishment later.

slide-04

Photo by Carol Rosegg

If you don’t have any sort of nostalgic relationship with the original musical, this Cinderella may not be the most magical ticket for your money, as it’s best when it’s true to the original songs. Osnes sets the stage with her delicate “In My Own Little Corner,” fragile without bleeding vulnerability (to hear it, click here and scroll down). I personally have a villainous vein and loathe stories about falling in love and romance, but am a sucker for a good waltz. Therefore the “Ten Minutes Ago” ball sequence is the pinnacle of the show, an absolutely gorgeous flurry taffeta and tuxedo tails. According to Ivey Long, the underskirts of the luscious gowns are made of more silvery tones than the top skirt, so that as the majestic twirls and lifts of the dance fill the stage, the mise en scène assumes a heavenly, moonlit palette. The choreography melts into the ethereal and colorful gowns to create pure magic, almost suspending the very Time the budding romance resists until the clock strikes midnight.

slide-02

Photo by Carol Rosegg

The most intriguing aspect of this production, at least for someone in graduate school when the press released was first issued, was the attempt to modernize the script to accommodate today’s more consciously feminist audiences critical of the Princess Industrial Complex. Accompanying the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein score is a new book by Douglas Carter Beane, for whom a social victory may be questionable. He hurls a lot of undefined, quasi-populist rhetoric like “the people!” and “the poor!”—terms which remain amorphous throughout the show as you don’t see “the people” until the end when all the problems are “resolved.” (This is theater—show, don’t tell.) The preachy concoction of progressive politics more serves to annoy than enlighten and ultimately raises more questions about a woman’s power in society than the discussion is able to reconcile. The most disheartening part is that the ideas to help these nameless, faceless people don’t come from Cinderella herself, but rather from some dude character they superfluously added to the story. Ultimately, the character of Cinderella simply becomes a very nice and pretty First Lady, but not the intelligent, ambitious woman I would assume the creators were trying to create. She’s not Hillary Clinton, she’s Kate Middleton. The whole re-write was definitely a missed opportunity to give her a true sense of purpose; it’s a compromise that definitely seems compromising. But it’s at this point that I worry my ideas of feminism become too prescriptive and will stop talking… Although if I ever see Douglas Carter Beane, I will be forced to simply shake my head.

Anna Louizo's concept sketch for Cinderella.

Anna Louizo’s concept sketch for Cinderella.

Supplementing the attempt to “modernize” the story, the characters spend most of the time outdoors in nature, a tactic to maintain to illusion of fantasy but also a conscious rejection of the opulent and grandiose royal fantasy that would be a more “Disney” approach to the environment. Anna Louizos’s set offers only suggestions of a castle—fragmentary gothic arches, modest chandeliers, and a disconnected staircase for Cinderella to famously stumble down. But even then, the proscenium is framed with tree branches and leaves. In certain lighting, fans of medieval art might catch a nod to the glorious tapestries of that era. Again, however, nothing in the set reflects the supposed plight of the “people” of the kingdom so frequently mentioned by Cinderella’s more worldly and preachy friend.

Cinderella Playbill

Cinderella Playbill

The oral history of Cinderella had her famous slippers as fur. Can you imagine her running down the marble steps of the palace in what would essentially be Uggs? When Charles Perrault produced the first published version of the fairytale in 1697, French taste kicked in and he changed the shoe’s medium to glass. Literary scholars as well as dramaturgists would presumably argue that this sole piece of footwear is the defining characteristic of the Cinderella fairytale, serving as the chief catalyst of the plot. James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s infamous 1987 musical Into the Woods gave Cinderella a moment to analyze her thoughts in the song “On the Steps of the Palace” in which she plots:

So you pry up your shoes/Then from out of the blue/And without any guide/You know what your decision is/Which is not to decide/You’ll leave him a clue/For example, a shoe/And then see what he’ll do.

Well, at least she thought about it. Spoiler alert about what spoils this new Cinderella: Beane must have thought he would follow in suit of making changes to the cobbler’s formula, and as Cinderella frantically leaves the ball at midnight, she has the wherewithal to go back and pick up her shoe. She returns to the palace for a banquet in Act Two, and this time leaves the glass slipper for Prince Topher (yes, Topher) to come and find her. Cinderella running down the stairs a second time and intentionally leaving the slipper is a tongue-and-cheek jab at convention and inside-joke wink to the audience, but also an incredible annoyance. New York Magazine’s theater critic Scott Brown applauded the new script’s insertion of Cinderella’s “agency” with this action. First of all, I congratulate his new vocabulary word, undoubtedly showing that he’s started some undergraduate coursework in Women’s Studies. But secondly, the glass slipper is the very symbol of that lack of agency, and Beane’s manipulation of that symbol does nothing to change the characters’ trajectory or ultimate fate. No matter the intention of the abandoned footwear, we find ourselves resorting to the “someday my prince will come” idiom. So perhaps instead of just tinkering with the conceit, it would be more effective to just shatter it.

Laura Osnes and Victoria Clark, photo by Carol Rosegg

Laura Osnes and Victoria Clark, photo by Carol Rosegg

No shortage exists of feminist opinions in the media scape, but in popular culture one might look for something with more poise than the bodily-function-infused, crass train wreck of Bridesmaids or the narcissistic, pseudo-realistic unpleasantness helmed by the Lena Dunham Girls over on HBO. Mr. Beane, even with the help of the always elegant and progressive Rodgers and Hammerstein, sadly doesn’t provide it either. Or perhaps I could stop demanding that every endeavor be a barometer of social consciousness and enjoy a beautifully told fairytale that seems to withstand the test of time, occasionally needing some magical tweaks here and there. I never want the intoxicating score to ever not be in my head, I’ve fallen over furniture in my apartment numerous times attempting to waltz by myself, and when the show ultimately ended at 10:30 I wanted it to go on for at least another hour and a half until technical difficulties may have started to ensue. And William Ivey Long’s costumes merit one last shout out for their amazing powers of transformation. In the moonlight of where this production leaves us, perhaps Tina Fey should stop work on the rumored Mean Girls musical and give Cinderella some better things to say.

Suggested wine pairing: This is a family show, so you should not be drinking. (But if you did bring your flask, which might be helpful to survive some of Beane’s more insufferable puns (and mine), I’m going to recommend Riesling for the only time ever. Frisk’s to be exact. It’s light enough that you won’t be drunk and make a mess of yourself at the ball, it’s nearly clear to accessorize with your shoes, and cheap enough that you can stock up on a few bottles in case Act Two starts to drag…)

It was as “ANN” as the nose on Plain’s face…

"Ann"

“Ann”

…that if you’re in New York, go see Ann before it falls off the fiscal cliff! (That’s of course just theater lingo for “closes today!”) Ann is a biographical, one-woman show about the late Texas governor Ann Richards, written and performed by Holland Taylor of Two and A Half Men fame (although the question proliferating throughout the audience was, “She was in Romancing the Stone?” Playbill does not lie, so yes).

One would assume, as surely the producers did, that this week’s events in the Texas Senate as well as the onslaught of Supreme Court rulings would drive the politically minded to boost ticket sales; unfortunately empty seats were at a surplus. But the show is insightful and relevant nonetheless in the face of today’s political quagmires. The plaintiffs and filibusterers in this week’s news certainly gave politics faces (because “debt ceiling” can be kind of abstract), but this show gives politics a personality and a heart. Starting with a fictitious college commencement address and amphorously navigating to an afternoon in Office and then a dreamlike call to action, Taylor offers through Richards a no-nonsense, witty, and ultimately compassionate glimpse into the mind of one of the “them” that works our government and shapes our nation, free from the verbal clichés we’ve heard all week. It is truly a hidden gem, housed up at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater rather than something more Times-Square adjacent. It also produces more genuine laughs than supposed “master of comedy” Christopher Durang’s Chekhovian mosh pit.

There are few characters I enjoy watching more than a sassy ol’ broad. They tend to be alcoholics, but in the case of Ann, she’s already been to rehab! (And sorry for all the Arrested Development jokes. They really have no relation to this show.) Richards was apparently a woman of assertive but graceful power, but unlike other such portrayals of female political heavyweights like Selina Meyer on Veep, she maintains a groundedness and a snarkless sense of humor. Taylor at times gets lost in the anecdotes and wistfully meanders a little too far away from the point, but that does not compromise the compelling personality of the late politico. A few other mistakes arise in the presentation of this fascinating life, but Taylor’s charming performance of this endearing woman abolishes any negative sentiments. Her ultimate message implores us all to be engaged and also aware of our own ignorance, highlighted by a poignant line: “It popped my eyes open when I didn’t even know they were closed.”

Protected: Tony & Sonia & Kinky & Mic

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

[diss]Regarding Warhol

The following is rated GS: Gratuitous Snark

"Self Portrait"

Andy Warhol, Self-Portrait, 1967.

Possibly slapped together by summer interns utilizing the museum website’s search function, Regarding Warhol: Sixty Years, Fifty Artists at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has the intellectual depth of a season of The Hills. I didn’t put a ton of thought into this post; but after seeing what has manifested as an exhibition, lack of thought mirrors the attitude of the curators. You can almost see the hands of the Board of Directors curating the exhibition, feeling the museum needs another “rock star” show now that is has been over a year since Savage Beauty marched back into the macabre archives of the House of McQueen (or wherever those hauntingly beautiful creations have found their final resting place). The Met is often criticized for not focusing more on Contemporary Art, but this is New York City and there’s enough of that elsewhere. MoMA does exist, or so Twitter tells me.

Red Jackie

Andy Warhol, Red Jackie, 1964.

Roberta Smith, art critic for the New York Times, commented, “That it can seem that just about any artist from the last three decades could have been included testifies either to Warhol’s influence or the show’s shapelessness.” No one is refuting that Warhol is the influential artist that he has become known to be, but needing to articulate it through this “Who’s Who” Where’s Waldo parade is more of an insult to the museum patron’s intellect. Categorized under the same subheadings as Warhol’s Wikipedia entry (fact checking has confirmed that it is not in fact the same subheadings), the exhibition is divided into five themes integral to Warhol’s work: Daily News, Portraiture, Queer Studies, Consuming Images, and No Boundaries. The fat of the exhibition flabbily hangs on this skeletal outline, as each wall label attempts to assert the show’s over-arching thesis repeatedly like a precocious seventh grader who has just learned how to write a research paper. Since Warhol did portraiture, apparently everyone did portraiture—Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Rembrandt, the Renaissance painters, the Egyptians…

Cow Wallpaper

Andy Warhol, Cow Wallpaper [Pink on Yellow], 1966.

Though it’s not very productive to just be negative. The show is designed very well with a cleverly fun but modern edge and a particular flare for entertainment not typically associated with such an exhibit (or institution). Putting an exclamation point on each section is a piece that through scale or interaction is definitely a “wow” moment. The interactive pieces—Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s pile of candy for the taking “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) and Warhol’s own Silver Clouds—actually manage to defy the notorious “museum effect”: intangible objectification of tangible objects. But whether all this simply becomes a sensationalized crutch is another point entirely…

Green Coca-Cola Bottles

Andy Warhol, Green Coca-Cola Bottles, 1962.

I’ve never been a big fan of Warhol—not because I don’t respect his work, but because he tends to be the cultural refuge of people whose knowledge of art history is as vapid as an aboveground swimming pool in wintertime…or this exhibition. He’s an obvious favorite of anyone easily wooed and distracted by bright colors, for whom a television channel other than E! would be a very foreign and perplexing place. This certainly is not the profile of every Warhol fan (no offense, everyone), but every sorority girl has Marilyn’s portrait tacked up on her dorm wall. That’s an issue for my own pretentious demons, but to see him then designated as the seminal artist who is responsible for (they’re alleging) literally every achievement in art post-1962 is a bit infuriating and very much laughable. But even for a fan, the abundance of replicas undermines Warhol’s genius rather than immortalizing it, reducing his witty insights and progressive thought to the mere coasters and postcards that can be picked up in the gift shop immediately outside of the exhibition.

Suggested wine pairing: Using the above image as inspiration of Warhol’s seriality and commercial critique, it’s scary to say Yellow Tail might be the Coca-Cola of wine. But in an effort to save our taste buds, let’s instead Pop (haha) a cork on a bottle of sometime cheap and tasty: Naked Grape.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 52 other followers