Electricity Turned Off

Vintage Billy Elliot Playbill, circa the year of its Tonys 2009

Vintage Billy Elliot Playbill, circa the year of its Tonys 2009

…and no, it’s not a Hurricane Irene power failure (since there weren’t really any of those), but yesterday, as tears were shed around the globe, Billy Elliot closed on Broadway after a run of three years. To anyone whom I may have recommended the show, I apologize for perhaps inflating it by calling it “the best show ever” (although the New York Post agrees with me, as evidenced by the elephantine billboard that has blazoned above the entrance to the Imperial Theater for the last three years), but I must say I stand by that comment. With its moving story, flawless direction by Stephen Daldry, and touchingly personal score by Elton John, it remains one of two shows in my theater-viewing experience to strike me so hard that I was barely able to control my emotions and compose myself during intermission (eliciting a visceral response know to most as crying). The other was August: Osage County, but that was because I was laughing so hard (I don’t know what it is about an elderly pill addict who insults her family through horrendous verbal tirade that just makes me giggle).

Copyright billyelliotbroadway.com

Copyright billyelliotbroadway.com

There’s something seriously wrong with the world—not that anyone really needs to be told that—if a show like Billy Elliot is closing while a production as vapid and asinine as Mamma Mia! is still chugging away (I like to think of Mamma Mia! as a necklace a grade school girl might make during the craft session of summer camp, where the songs are brightly colored cheap plastic beads haphazardly strung together with the elastic string that is the plot to create the illusion of continuity, when in reality the final product is just tacky). Three years is a healthy, profitable run, and this is of course not intentionally a blatant attack on Mamma Mia! individually (it is fun after all, despite the bulky, middle-aged bodies in spandex bell-bottoms), but rather its representation of shows that are commercial hits and perennially set attendance records, but…let’s say leave more to be desired. Billy failed in Chicago playing to WNBA-sized audiences and closing five months early, though for that, blame deservedly goes to the management who has done little right since divorcing and evicting Wicked early in 2009 after a commercially successful marriage. Looking at the carnival of what constitutes source material these days, a limited number of masterpieces hit the Broadway stage, so it’s sad to see one fade into the shadows.

Billy Elliot at The Palace Theatre Victoria, Copyright billyelliotbroadway.com

Billy Elliot at The Palace Theatre Victoria, Copyright billyelliotbroadway.com

It’s an oddly magnetic show because it doesn’t feel directly relatable. Sure, everyone has a dream but maybe not the emotional or financial support to pursue it, but the broader social, political, and economic factors at play in Billy’s Durham County render the situation realistic as an Oscar-nominated screenplay rather than real life (how often does a riot break out in your front yard, unless of course you live near the happenings of the Arab Spring?). Perhaps it’s because he’s only 12 years old, and childhood tends to evoke a certain sympathy. But I hate kids, and in today’s modern parenting where an iPhone is an acceptable Christmas present for a 6-year-old who cannot yet read, I prefer to see kids not getting what they want (they do, after all, fawn over Justin Bieber types who are symptomatic of the demise of quality entertainment as we know it). Whatever is so captivating about Billy—the overcoming of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the persistently fervent emotional drive, the exaggerated parody of Maggie Thatcher politics, or perhaps an Edgar Degas tutu fetish—dance on! That’s an order coming from someone who actually owns tap shoes.

Suggested wine pairing: Not to condone underage drinking amongst cross-dressing 12-year-olds (even though they do it anyway leading to Swan Lake dream sequences), but let’s go easy on this one with a wine cooler. Some may call it a gateway beverage started at grade school graduation parties, but the miners lost the strike, so let’s give them something…other than ten Tony Awards.

Fashion that Defines and Deludes

THE COLLECTION OF ELIZABETH TAYLOR

Christie's: the Collection of Elizabeth Taylor

Christie's: the Collection of Elizabeth Taylor

On a mild Tuesday night in December, while some of us were composing final papers or suffering through an episode of “Glee,” Christie’s was setting the world record for highest grossing sale of a private jewelry inventory with the auction of the Collection of Elizabeth Taylor. The sheer quantity of iconic couture and the priceless jewelry is enough to make any poor, hungry child think, “Damn, this is some nice stuff.” Each case a microcosm of effervescent beauty, its landscape is populated with the kinds of gems that mythically crammed the tombs of the pharaohs. It’s hard to not think it solipsistic that one woman would possess what appears to be the collection of a royal dynasty. America’s royalty might not be official, but it sure thinks it is (tiaras being no exception). All cynicism aside, to say that a 33.17-karat diamond ring is intoxicatingly transfixing is a bigger understatement than saying that Lizzie’s kids might be slightly annoyed that they aren’t getting any of this loot. You feel the same jealous awe of a child who receives milk in his lunch when the kid next to him gets chocolate milk in hers as you are forced to approach the ring with complete objectivity, its cut perfect to optimize its radiant sparkle . Somewhat ironically, there’s nothing like standing six inches away from a colonnade of Oscars to wash away all prejudice of glamour and excess. They’re just so fancy. In a way, they solidify the concoction of fame projected onto these individuals as they remind you that actual talent might have been involved.

The Elizabeth Taylor Diamond, A Diamond Ring

The Elizabeth Taylor Diamond, A Diamond Ring

Initially, it was difficult to take anything in the exhibition seriously as I have just recently watched the HBO filming of Carrie Fisher’s one-woman show “Wishful Drinking” in which the first segment viciously satirizes the celebrities of Taylor’s time and is titled “Hollywood Inbreeding 101” (“Then they got divorced. Keep that in mind because it just might come up again.”). In light of this mindset, the rooms upon rooms of objects soon to be dispersed around the world for millions of dollars ($150 million, to be approximate) underscores the ephemerality of glamour and fame (even superseding the perennial “15 minutes” doesn’t make you totally immune). Some may call it a legacy, but the disparate pieces are far less sparkly when separated from the whole.

DAPHNE GUINNESS

Daphne Guiness, The Museum at FIT

Daphne Guiness, The Museum at FIT

Continuing through the lens of the collector (an unusual though enticing perspective), the clearly less famous though probably more interesting Daphne Guinness has opened her curiosity-cabinet closet doors at the Museum at FIT, exposing a world that amalgamates reminiscence of forgone days with a fierce (no Christian Siriano pun intended) vision of futuristic self-expression. Guinness’ fame is delineated from her love of couture clothing coupled with a family heritage of European aristocracy and a cultural education usually only read about in Romantic fiction. Amateurishly curated, it was clearly trying to emulate the Met’s Alexander McQueen retrospective that was this summer’s blockbuster exhibition (five-hour lines are typically akin to waiting for the latest Apple product, not museum exhibitions). Despite the shaky presentation (and occasional misspellings in the wall text), it’s a lovely homage to a true lover of fashion’s homage to great and innovative design.

Daphne Guiness, The Museum at FIT, Copyright 2011

Daphne Guiness, The Museum at FIT, Copyright 2011

Viewing the wardrobe is an extrapolation of the collective consciousness of the fashion elite, though forcibly dictated by the taste and psychological determination of the amasser. Her view of fashion as armor is clearly expressed with the sea of monochromatic (black, white, the occasional metallic, and the almost ostracized pops of color) mannequins staring blankly back at you—though less blankly than actual models would have—and the protruding of feathers, spikes, metal pieces, and even sequins truly aimed at diffusing interaction. The spirit of imagination and true creation, characteristic of many of the represented designers like McQueen, is an unpronounced theme that overrides the segregated communities of garments on display. Despite the vast collection and perceived vanity of fashion, Guinness uses it to make an empirical observation about consumption: “We need better things, not more.” Attention, Walmart shoppers…

GAGA’S WORKSHOP

Gaga's Workshop at Barney's New York

Gaga's Workshop at Barney's New York

And finally, an open letter to Lady Gaga: I love you, but please stop making it so difficult to do so. I can handle the supposed plagiarism and obvious propaganda of “Born This Way,” and the subtle mediocrity of the uninspiring “Marry the Night,” even with its awkward mid-song bridge, but Gaga’s Workshop—on sale at Barney’s New York for the holiday season—is just distressing. A collection of over-priced cheap garbage derivative of her most famous antics, it’s like Whoville if Dr. Seuss had a slight drug problem and an affinity for Pop Art. A pair of acrylic rings I got for a quarter in a toy machine at a Steak and Stake in Kentucky (seriously) is on sale for $25. If you’re in the market for cookies shaped like meat dresses, corsets, and gyroscopes, you’re in luck. Admittedly, I don’t frequent superfluously high-end stores, but I’m still somewhat certain that $265 sunglasses typically aren’t packaged in shrink-wrap. The self-aggrandizing that she typically so narrowly escapes in her over the top performances is completely negated by the display.

Gaga's Workshop at Barney's New York

Gaga's Workshop at Barney's New York

Her most recent album, “Born This Way,” though questionable in musical quality, addressed an incredibly pertinent issue of pop culture as modern religion, reappropriating elements of Christian religious tradition to make this point. Her monologue at this year’s VMAs done in drag made a profoundly philosophical commentary on the performative nature of personality. Anyone who can describe their single (“Bad Romance”) as “industrial, Russian, Gothic, pop” has something awesomely transcendent working in their favor. Where was that creativity and depth in this exploitatively commercialized presentation? I’m an avid fan of her art (well, I guess I now need to use quotes: “art”), so it seems incredulous that the Lady would support such a venture. But she incriminatingly appeared at the opening in custom Chanel that comfortingly (and now ironically) made her look like Mother Gigogne in a contemporary dance rendition of The Nutcracker. So Mama Monster, while I applaud the effort toward stylistic attainability, please don’t abuse the fans who made it all possible. Sincerely, a Little Monster whose claw is disgruntled and limp.

Gaga's Workshop at Barney's New York

Gaga's Workshop at Barney's New York

Suggested wine pairing: But what else? Champagne of course! The elegance of Golden Age Hollywood and European aristocracy beats a musicians’ Jack Daniels 2 to 1. And if I’m being too harsh on any of these lovely ladies, the poppy frivolity of a champagne cork heals all wounds.

Caricature: The Art of Visual Satire

Detail, "Odd Characters," by Thomas Rowlandson, 1801

Detail, "Odd Characters," by Thomas Rowlandson, 1801, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Leonardo da Vinci is the kind of person to go back in time and have a drink with. While Michelangelo was a non-hygienic recluse and Raphael was an overly charming golden boy, Leonardo had a sense of humor. Even though he created the most famous painting in history (she just keeps staring…), he also had the conscientious mind to take one giant, unpretentious step back from the lofty achievement of Renaissance High Art and have some fun, as illustrated by the caricatures that annotate his legendary sketches. His famous sketchbook that delved into some of the earliest representations of modern caricature serves as the starting point for the exhibition Infinite Jest, selections of caricature from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s permanent collection. Learning about the esteemed cast of artists that have such works in their portfolios grants an interesting counter commentary to art history. Bernini (yes, that Bernini of St. Peter’s Basilica fame) was the first caricaturist to explicitly target a specific person, that being the pope. Considering Bernini is the father of Baroque and Baroque was meant to restore the defamed power of the Vatican in the 17th century, this caricature clearly suggests an elephant in the room—a brilliantly sculpted, massive bronze elephant adorned with gilt swirling putti and acanthus leaves. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising for an artist to have strong opinions (Oh hey, Diego Rivera).

"Six Stages of Mending a Face, Dedicated with Respect to the Right Honorable Lady Archer," by Thomas Rowlandson, 1792

"Six Stages of Mending a Face, Dedicated with Respect to the Right Honorable Lady Archer," by Thomas Rowlandson, 1792, Metropolitan Museum of Art

When people buy $20 caricatures at Six Flags and have them printed on coffee mugs and t-shirts, they’re probably unaware of the rich history of the subversive art form. Viewing past social satire offers an interesting perspective on the continuity of human nature in that many of the issues addressed, particularly toward fashion, are still relevant today and are actually exacerbated in contemporary society. The accompanying image is a mockery of an elderly socialite who wears wigs and applies excessive proportions of dangerous, lead-based makeup in order to appear younger. After making a few modern alterations to that statement, this sounds oddly familiar (just consult the menu at your local plastic surgeon’s office). The final phase of the caricature depicts her departing for a masquerade furnished with a mask that renders large portions of her arduous preparation completely unnecessary—kind of like when it’s humid and rainy on the red carpet at the Golden Globe Awards (schadenfreude at it’s most appropriate). Caricature is a fun medium because it can have much deeper, political and social implications, but it can also just be a comic rift on the diversity and welcomed imperfections of humanity.

"Anything Goes," copyright Squigs 2011, www.squigsink.com

"Anything Goes," copyright Squigs 2011, http://www.squigsink.com

While on the subject of caricature, you hopefully appreciated the final image of the previous post, “How to Succeed [On Broadway] Without Really Trying” (a show whose title proves to be the most cumbersome ever written and has been cursed by graphic designers and marketing associates for the last fifty years). It is a caricature by an artist who calls himself Squigs (known in more formal though less charmingly mysterious circles as Justin Robertson). His work, in the grand tradition of Al Hirschfeld, has become the unofficial soul of Broadway poster art over the last few years. It is almost a revivalist approach to the craft, since many theater caricatures have become more stylized glamour shots than comically distorted cartoons (people aren’t normal, and they shouldn’t be depicted as such). In 2009, Broadway sweetheart Sutton Foster received a caricature at the iconic Sardi’s that looked like a Photoshopped fashion magazine cover rather than a cartoon playing with her delightfully goofy features that aid in making her the standout comic actress that she is. Squigs reverts back to the exaggeration, clustered grouping, and dramatic elongation that characterize classic theatrical caricature.

"Kristen Chenoweth," copyright Squigs 2011, www.squigsink.com

"Kristen Chenoweth," copyright Squigs 2011, http://www.squigsink.com

While there are other illustrators today working in the same vein, there’s something about the colorful exuberance of Squig’s pieces that more accurately capture the dynamic personality of Broadway (cue the jazz hands). His technique brings a contemporary touch to the classic art form with its bold, colorful tone that further develops the animated personalities of the already larger-than-life personas. The facial construction of individual performers shows a personal, intimate knowledge of the community while often representing what appear to be personality traits rather than physical features. There is a true theatrical passion instilled in the drawings that perfectly embodies the spirit of the show it is depicting, as each composition explodes from the epicenter in intersecting geometry that links the characters emphatically. In a unique spin on the ephemeral nature of live theater, it’s like viewing the entire show all at once—two hours and forty five minutes of tap dancing distilled into one, visually-pleasing punch in the face.

Suggested wine pairing: Regular wine seems to lack the appropriate energy (I’m talking about the liquid in the glass, not the consumer after the third round), so let’s add some spirited carbonation with a classic wine spritzer.

How to Succeed [on Broadway] Without Really Trying

How to Succeed at the Al Hirschfeld Theater

"How to Succeed" at the Al Hirschfeld Theater

“Yar a wizard Harry.” And evidently a conniving, fast-thinking, smooth-talking businessman, as seen in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying currently playing at the Al Hirschfeld Theater. I’ve never quite understood people’s fascination with con men, but in entertainment today you just can’t seem to escape their self-serving antics. I am a fervid believer in working hard and think that manipulative rule breaking destroys society (rule breaking and the Kardashian’s). Because of this I was not incredibly inspired by the show overall, although it is an appreciably timely satire of the fallacies of American corporate culture. Thankfully, the energetic and crafty direction of Rob Ashford, the affability of the exuberant cast, the occasional poppy tune, and WWACS (What Would Anderson Cooper Say?) resulted in a superbly entertaining night at the theater.

The cast of How to Succeed, from fuckyeahscenicdesign.tumblr.com

The cast of "How to Succeed," from fuckyeahscenicdesign.tumblr.com

Rob Ashford’s work has been almost constantly represented on the Broadway stage since his 2002 Tony-winning tapping in Thoroughly Modern Millie. He has become the preeminent director/choreographer for trendy, star-driven revivals (Promises, Promises and the upcoming Evita), and this show further proves his place in a pantheon of contemporary choreographers that are immediate selections for producers. In my observation, he embraces the physicality of dance, and in his new role as director creates a flawlessly fluid relationship between stage movement and dance. Witnessing the near acrobatic skill of the performers just intensifies my craving to see Anything Goes, which beat Ashford’s stunning choreography for the 2011 Tony Award—honestly, I’ve never seen so many creative ways to do cartwheels. View How to Succeed’s show-stopping (or ending) finale, “The Brotherhood of Man,” which elicits well-deserved cheers from the audience.

"How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" Playbill

"How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" Playbill

Daniel Radcliffe. Oh, Harry Potter. Many close friends are going to hate me for saying this, but he’s just good. Compared to the rest of the talent onstage, it’s like he’s a performer from a high school play. But to be fair, in terms of the craft of acting, that’s really where he is. He puts his heart and soul into his performance, and should he choose to have a future on Broadway—instead of just sitting at home with his millions watching Spongebob Squarepants—he has amazing potential (and will perhaps one day receive that ever elusive Tony nomination). He is enthusiastic, witty, and despite his celebrity status is able to establish a meaningful connection with the audience, aided primarily by his spotlit moments of character success. J. Pierrepont Finch (F-I-N-C-H) isn’t inherently likable, but Radcliffe’s charm definitely becomes his redemption. It’s kind of like watching Neil Patrick Harris on “How I Met Your Mother”: Barney is a despicable degenerate, but you gotta love NPH. If you have interest this show, see it soon because either of D-Rad’s replacements will be unwatchable. With Darren Criss (who has skillfully defied the odds and surpassed his cast mates as the most annoying product of the tragic pandemic of “Glee”), I think I would probably get up and leave. Nick Jonas just won’t make any sense, but will of course bring the most profitable demographic ever of teenage girls screaming to the theater. God help us.

"How to Succeed" caricature from www.squigsink.com

"How to Succeed" caricature from http://www.squigsink.com

The rest of the cast…oh who really cares? Everyone just came to see the wizard. (But really, a valiant effort by all of them. I have never seen a cast congeal into such an effectively cohesive force of entertainment. The ensemble is literally a character of its own. I would like to accept John Larroquette’s Tony Award on behalf of the cast as a whole.)

I view D-Rad’s performance as a critique of celebrity headliners, though unbeknownst to Radcliffe. Season after season, the marquees are filled with the names of some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Frequently, they’re honored with Tony Awards for their, um, “efforts” to which they react as if they’ve just been handed a role of toilet paper (Scarlet, darling, I realize that you had probably never even heard of a Tony Award before May 2010, but most people at least smile). It’s a nauseating phenomenon that, thanks to amazing profit margins, will not be going away any time soon. I applaud Radcliffe because he will be with the show for the better part of a year, which for a Broadway actor is comparable to the length of a sneeze, but for the Hollywood glitterati is a massive sacrifice of time (do you have any idea how many fragrances can be launched, marriages faked, and seemingly unposed but really staged “beach body” photos captured in that time? Millions of dollars worth). This is also his second Broadway endeavor, and both stints required serious dedication on his part. His dedication, modesty, and perseverance is commendable and a slap in the face to anyone who thinks Broadway would be something “fun” to do before they have to start filming “RomCom 2: Another Snooze Fest You’ll Be Tricked Into Paying $9 to See with the Promise of a Career Woman Finding Love, Gushy Romantic One-Liners, and Unrealistically Chiseled Male Torsos” (no, that’s not just the working title). Rock on, Danny Rad.

Suggested wine pairing: In a departure from convention, I will not be recommending wine. In honor of the 1960s business culture, I think Don Draper would recommend scotch…but maybe put some Splenda in it.

Design!

Typefaces at MoMA

Typefaces at MoMA

It’s always refreshing when museums focus exhibitions on design—just ask the Met about “Savage Beauty” and what that did for their membership enrollment. I love fine art as much as the next cultured, egotistical sophisticate, but the interactivity and utilitarian relatability of design consign it another dimension of experience. My historical perspective might be limited, but I have noticed a burgeoning presence of design exhibitions in museums across the country—recently “Avant Garde” at the Art Institute of Chicago, “European Design of the 1980s” at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the aforementioned “Savage Beauty” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and everything at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt. Despite this assortment, I have never encountered anything that specifically focuses on typography. Having a background in graphic design, it was a pleasantly jarring surprise to discover the new acquisition in the design galleries at MoMA that feature a collection of typefaces. They are those most related to the Digital Age, such as OCR-A, Oakland, Garamond, and the all too recognizable “Error 404 Page not found” (darn wireless is out again).

Typefaces at MoMA

Typefaces at MoMA

I had a typography professor who encouraged us to study letterforms in as large a size as we possibly could, because only then do you disassociate it with the letter it represents and instead view it as a designed shape. To some extent this is being demonstrated in the display of the typefaces in the gallery. They are freed from the glowing rectangular confines known as computer screens and released from the sometimes-oppressive company of graphics and color and being permitted to model their curves. Presented in such a way, it’s a new perspective with which to examine something you think you know so well. I’m sure people would find confusion in encountering fonts in a design gallery, but really typography is the corner stone of graphic design. However, if Comic Sans or Curlz MT were to enter the building, security would need to be called.

Typefaces at MoMA

Typefaces at MoMA

Not to evoke revolutionary or bourgeois rhetoric (as I avoid Wall Street like the plague), but in many ways design is the art of the people. Not everyone (in fact, essentially no one) can afford to adorn the walls of their abode with a Rembrandt, a Picasso, or a Pollock, but as operative creatures we surround ourselves with objects every day, all of which have been designed. Whether it is an Ikea table, an iPod Touch, or a pocket umbrella from WalMart that broke the first time it rained, they have all been conceived and designed to achieve some aesthetic and functional goal. In light of this brief discussion, it seems apropos to reference the People’s Design Award, as orchestrated by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in celebration of National Design Week. PDA accepts nominations from anyone and everyone (go for it!) and is open for voting until October 17th. Here is your opportunity to help define taste and aesthetics…or at the very least show other design enthusiasts what you think is cool.

People's Design Award

People's Design Award

Suggested wine pairing: Since design is so diverse, I think selecting one wine for it would be too limiting. Therefore, you can decide for yourself. However, I might recommend the following wine rack, evocative of MoMA’s design collection: Wine Rack.