On this week's edition of 3rd & Fairfax, the podcast of the Writers Guild of America, the guest is writer and showrunner Jason Katims, who talks about his career as showrunner for such series as Friday Night Lights, Parenthood, Roswell and About a Boy, among others, as well as his new show, Rise, which he developed.
There was something odd about watching the live production of Jesus Christ Superstar on NBC last night. It fits under the "Oh, my, how times have changed" heading. When the original concept album by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber was released in 1970 and then had its Broadway production in 1973, the material was considered profoundly controversial and met with protests by religious groups. And not just religious groups -- the BBC banned the album for being "sacrilegious." But now, 45 years later, there it is, given a national platform to help celebrate Easter. And with a black man as Jesus. For a bit of perspective, it was only less than two years ago when Megyn Kelly on "Fox News" felt compelled to tell all the kiddies watching not to worry because Santa Claus was actually white.
(What's interesting too, for all the religious fervor that seemingly attached itself to the production -- both in the network promotion and the live-audience reaction -- is a comment that Andrew Lloyd Webber made on the NBC special to promote the show a few days before. He was talking about how when they wrote the work, Tim Rice worked very hard to make sure his words didn't favor one side or the other, in making clear that their point-of-view was not that Jesus was the Son of God or just a man.)
Speaking of that audience, I thought it was very smart of NBC to have a theater audience there, which helped lend a sense of enthusiasm and vitality to a live undertaking, given it more the aura of a rock concert. I also thought that, for all its positives, it was also the biggest drawback of the show, with maniacal cheering and screaming throughout, often for no apparent reason, other than people seemed to feel it was a point where they should scream in joy -- though why finishing singing a verse and turning to walk three feet away to continue singing was something that should register a scream I haven't quite figured out. It was 20% religious frenzy, 30% rock heaven, and the remainder an obligation to react because they got in free and probably thought they were supposed to. I thought it reached its bizarre peak when John Legend as Jesus was convicted and carried off overhead by the guards with his arms outstretched...and the audience began roaring and applauding. All I could think was, "Wait, you're cheering that Jesus Christ is about to get crucified???"
I also thought it was completely disingenuous for NBC to promote this as "Jesus Christ Superstar in Concert." In no way, shape or form was this a "concert production." This was a fully-staged, fully-choreographed musical. The staging was no different at all from Hamilton -- if you haven't seen it, that show takes place on a single set, with tables and chairs occasionally brought in to change the setting. Exactly the same as was done here. Exactly. The only difference is that the band was on stage last night -- but that's no different from how they did it in Jersey Boys. Or the recent Steve Martin musical, Bright Star. Or as far back as The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Or many other musicals. A "concert version" is generally considered one where the chorus sits in chairs on stage, and often the main cast does, as well, out front. And they all may have a book with the score, which they hold in plain sight throughout. Then, when it's their turn to perform, they stand up and sing. This last night was a staged musical. Period. Maybe it was a little more bare bones than a show with lots of scene changes and props, but it's a musical, regardless. (Or a "rock opera," as it's long-called itself.) And no, this is not a big deal at all, and it's no aspersion on the production. Just a matter of marketing.
As for the production, I thought they did quite a nice job. I'm not a big fan of the show -- I've never seen it staged, only heard the original album quite a few times (and seen various videos). And I generally enjoy it. Not everything, I think a lot of the lyrics are simplistic, too spot-on direct, and a bit cloying at times. (It's important to remember that, rather than being written by two learned biblical scholars and accomplished men of the theater, Rice and Lloyd Webber were both in their early 20s, writing their first, full-fledged show). I'm also not a big fan of "sung-through" shows in general, with a few exceptions, and find this score in particular is a bit surface, without the depth of dramatic interaction that dialogue can bring. But overall they tell the story in an entertaining way, that's often effective, done from an interesting perspective, and there are quite a few very good songs.
And by and large, I thought the performance were pretty good. I'd have liked to have seen a touch more edge in a few places, but that's just personal choice. My only real quibble was with Sara Bareiles -- not that she wasn't good, in fact she did a very nice job. However I thought she was miscast. She was so sweet, so beatific that you could have mistakenly thought the character was the Virgin Mary, not Mary Magdalene. Bareilles just happens to have a warm personality about her that exudes through whatever she does, and I think the character requires at least some sort of edge, which allows us to see the conflict of Jesus with a prostitute, and Mary's growth. On the other end, although he just had one song, I thought Alice Cooper did a terrific job as King Herod. Often that number is performed as a comic piece, by an almost fey king. But you certainly weren't going to get that from Alice Cooper, and his performance was solidly grounded and menacing.
So, overall well-done, good staging and an effective piece for live television, even if more slight than is my personal preference. If only they could have told the audience during commercial breaks to take a Valium.
Following up in a way on the video I posted the other day from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which had references to The West Wing, I received the following from Shelly Goldstein. It was all the more pointed since the Lady Shellington and I used to have a fine tradition where we'd call one another after episodes of The West Wing and analyze the bejeepers out of it.
So, it was fun to see most of the cast reunited for this, though if you're going to reunite the cast of The West Wing -- or any show for that matter -- it would be nice if you actually showed them all together (which you would think would be the point) for more than about three seconds.
That said, nice too is the appearance at the end of the video by Jason Kander, the nephew of my longtime Camp Nebagamon friend, John. (Who, in turn. is the nephew of the other "John," better known for writing the musicals Cabaret and Chicago.)
Well, this is odd. It comes from ABC's 50th anniversary special in 2003. Unfortunately it's not remotely as funny as it should be, but there are some good lines in it, and just the concept wins points.
I've posted several songs from a 1976 TV musical version of "Pinocchio" that starred Sandy Duncan, along with Danny Kaye as Gepetto. It doesn't have a memorable score, but the songs by Billy Barnes are tuneful and work fine within the show. This is a nice, haunting ballad that a lonely Peter sings (and which Sandy Duncan does an excellent job with), "If I Could Start Again."
I have a sort of fun, odd bonus video. Billy Barnes, who wrote the score, was a successful music director for TV shows in the 1960s and into the 1970s. He also wrote special material and his name was most-familiar to for a series of "Billy Barnes Revue" albums he released. So, it was with a double-take that I noticed his name in the cast of an episode of Mad About You. He played a small role as a goofy piano player, Mr. Edlin, who was so amusing for his over-the-top mugging smile (and always going into playing a honky tonk versio of "One of Those Songs") that they used him in three episodes altogether (sometimes as an organist). If you watched the show, I suspect you'd recognize him. But as a reminder, I was able to track down one of those episodes -- when Paul Reiser directors a seniors production of The Pirates of Penzance -- the first one that the character appeared in, as the rehearsal pianist. This should jump to the right scene that he appears in throughout, but if not just go to the 4:00 mark.
As is my wont, I was browsing the YouTube thing and came across a video that reminded me of an article I had written seven years ago for the Huffington Post. May 25th, for those of you keeping notes.
It was somewhat of an offbeat piece. The background is that on a recent episode of Aaron Sorkin's show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Trip (about the people who put on a weekly live TV variety show, somewhat like Saturday Night Live), he brought in Allison Janney to guest star -- as the fake show's guest host that week. What made this noteworthy is that a regular on the this series was Timothy Busfield, who played the show's director. And for fans of The West Wing, this meant a re-teaming of Sorkin, Janney and Busfield -- the latter two who had just a joyously fun rapport in their dance-around-the-edges, would-be-but-never-quite romance. And the treat of the episode is that their wonderful rapport was still intact, and Sorkin played it for all it was worth. Even putting in a The West Wing reference -- which wasn't a stretch, since Allison Janney played a character named...Allison Janney.
I wish I could embed the full episode. It was a total treat, more of a comedy than usual, since it was about everything going wrong. But the good news is that I did find a 10-minute video that cut together much of Allison Janney's scenes -- which means that it includes much of the scenes with her and Timothy Busfield together. And that's the whole point here. The video doesn't do the episode justice -- or even do their scenes together justice, since you lose a bit of context. But you get a pretty good idea -- and with my original article below, you should have a better idea still. Just know this: in the episode, the prop department has gone on strike, and the question that Janney is concerned about during final dress rehearsal is whether the people with cue cards are part of the prop department. Busfield has kept assuring her before airtime that the cue cards are fine -- all to keep her calm. But the reality is...well, here's the article and then the video --
Hollywood’s New ‘It’ Couple in a Perfect World
May 25, 2011
Admittedly, this is a bit different. With the inauguration of the Huffington Post’s new design, however, it seems appropriate. A mere piffle to be sure, but some things far under the radar are too good to be allowed to pass without notice.
Last Thursday, NBC brought back Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, no doubt for its last hurrah. But whatever the reason, it was worthwhile because it gave the audience a chance to see one more re-teaming of what’s becoming a remarkable TV couple — Allison Janney and Timothy Busfield.
The two, of course, first overlapped on The West Wing as press secretary C.J. Cregg, and reporter Danny Concannon who was madly in love with her, but was perpetually rebuffed. Their rapport was always such a gem that it was allowed to flourish, to the point where the hapless Danny was allowed to win his heart’s desire at the end.
Janney isn’t a part of Studio 60, though Busfield is a regular, playing the director of the show-within-the-show. But Aaron Sorkin, who created both series, had the good sense to bring the actress in for a guest appearance, and made sure her character interacted with Busfield’s as much and as wonderfully as possible.
Whatever anybody thought of Studio 60, this one episode — titled “The Disaster Show” — made the whole series worth it. Okay, NBC might disagree, but they were footing the bill. (For my taste, I thought Studio 60 started out weakly, which killed it, but three or four weeks in, it found its voice and got absolutely terrific. But by then, it had lost its audience and was too late.)
But opinions of the full series aside, it was this single teaming of Janney and Busfield on Thursday that leaped out.
On the episode, Allison Janney portrayed a character named ... well, ‘Allison Janney.’ She played herself hosting the sketch show — on a night when the people who handle the cue cards go on strike moments before the live show is scheduled to begin.
The joy of the episode is that Busfield, as director, spends most of the show lying to Janney to keep her from panicking, and then charmingly apologizing the moment the problem comes to light. Such as when she steps on stage to do her opening monologue on live TV, only to discover to her horror that she has to ad-lib it. Busfield has given her an earpiece so that he can help guide her through the nightmare — but it’s her nightmare, because he appears to be having the time of her life. “Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention,” he coos warmly, with a twinkle, “there are no cue cards.”
Throughout the show, the two communicate intimately over the monitor, which is no easy feat for actors, as the studio audience is blissfully unaware of her private hell and thinking she’s talking to them alone. The funniest moment comes at the end, when she’s saying her live “goodnights” after the total disaster ... and then one more disaster occurs. As she desperately struggles on, even stumbling over her own credits, Busfield whispers into her earpiece, “‘The West Wing,’” and she finally screams out exasperated, uncaring that it’s live TV, “I know the name of the show I was on!!!!”
The whole episode was a hoot, but the joy was watching two consummate professionals having the time of their lives acting together, even when they usually weren’t in the same room together. As good as they were on “The West Wing,” they were even better here, like a pair of comfortable shoes that just feel perfect. Like a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces fit exactly, and the result is a beautiful picture.
A friend referred to them as the new ‘Nick and Nora,’ alluding to the characters William Powell and Myrna Loy played impeccably ages ago in the classic Thin Man movies. The performances that Janney and Busfield give are completely different, but the sensibility is apt: smart, funny, loving and outspoken. What we get are two actors so gorgeously paired that they become something different entirely, something special. Their timing, their glances, their body language all took the clever dialogue of the episode to another level.
I don’t know what Aaron Sorkin is going to do next, but it should be sure to have the two of them in it. Actually, some network should be smart enough to team them up in a series. Maybe they work best as a supporting couple, I don’t know — but man, do they ever work great together.
I meant to post this the other day, but the news world had its own mind about such this. This is a TV screen grab from Wednesday, which was National Walkout Day.
Actually, it wasn't just Nickelodeon, but that was the most notable given its viewership, and the last place you might think would not only be political, but on such a serious issue. However, all Viacom networks — which include MTV, BET, TV Land, CMT, and Comedy Central, along with Nickelodeon — went off the air for 17 minutes at 10 am EST.
Watching MSNBC's Steve Kornacki analyzing poll results on election night is like watching Knute Rockne give a pep talk.
Almost as much fun is watching the reaction of the other MSNBC reporters and pundits watching him with bemusement and awe.
(You have to watch this entire video to the end to get the full force. However, it's only two minutes long. But basically, if you haven't seen Mr. Kornacki in his comfort zone, this really is a close proximity.)
After receiving a bunch of responses from readers of this morning's article who fondly remember the aforementioned TV series,, You Are There, I thought I would note that a 6-DVD boxed set of the series is available here on Amazon. I believe that there are two half-hour episodes on each disk (fewer than one might reasonably expect) for a total of 12 shows.
It sells for $56, though I can't tell if this is new or used. In an accompanying chart, it appears as if this is a used product, though the actual price isn't marked as "used," which is generally the case.
As I've mentioned, I'm not a fan of the "freestyle" skiing events, though I can occasionally watch the moguls and halfpipe for a limited amount of time. So, I checked out some of the runs last night of the halfpipe competition, particularly because Shaun White was going for his fourth Gold Medal -- particularly notable for having been shut out of medals four years ago, after having won twice before. And the event couldn't have been a great deal more dramatic as it went down to White having the last run, while sitting in second place. Very exciting to see him go flying and turn in a great run to win.
A bit after the race, NBC cut back to the venue where one of their reporters conducted an interview with White. I don't recall her name, but it was a very bad decision on her part to conclude things by giving White a hug and a kiss. Was it personal? Sure. But it was far-more unprofessional. It wasn't like this was just such a emotionally dramatic moment and kissing him was the most-natural reaction. It was probably 20-30 minutes after the event, it was a basic interview. You don't hug and kiss the athlete. I expect the reporters I watch to carry more objectivity than that.
I didn't know at the time any of the stories about a lawsuit against him about sexual harassment from his days having a band. And that just makes the unprofessionalism of the kiss all the more pointed. Perhaps worse, Savannah Guthrie's smiley, nurturing, apologetic interview with him on the Today show to discuss his dismissal of charges against him as "gossip" was an embarrassment. "It's difficult, I take no pleasure in asking it" -- "Do you want to clear the air?" -- "Do you feel you learned something from that?" is not worthy of a professional either. And his answer, "I'm proud of who am I today" is not a response you let someone off the hook for, since at issue is not who you are today but what you did several years ago.
(Side note: at an Olympic press conference, an IOC official cut off questions to Shaun White saying that there should only be questions about the athletic competition. As Tony Kornheiser rightly said today on ESPN's Pardon the Interruption, when you're the Olympic Committee and you have the recent ghastly sexual abuse conviction of Larry Nasser, the USOC's Olympic gymnastic doctor, you don't cut off the questions.)
As for the competition, there was a terrific U.S. men's hockey game this morning. Professionals are no longer allowed to play, and the young U.S. did did very well for much of the game, taking a 2-0 lead against Slovenia. Unfortunately, they couldn't hold on and gave up a tying goal with only 1:37 left, and then lost in sudden death.
By the way, I'm always impressed with hockey announcers who are not only calling a fast-paced game, but also one where players change on the fly every two minutes or so. But it's all the more notable during the Olympics. First, these aren't players an announcer has had years getting used to, but athletes they've seen before. And second, they're dealing with names that are often as difficult to read as pronounce -- especially when you have a team like Slovenia. "Deposovitch passes the puck to Srbolic, over to Ralnimanikov who loses it but the puck is picked up by Krosellj." (For the record, that's pronounced "cro-shell." The "j" is silent...)
And coming up -- tonight, in fact, is a huge rivalry game, the U.S. women against Canada. It's not something that will impact medals, it's just a preliminary round match, and both teams are expected to move on, but it should be a terrific contest.
I meant to mention this the other day, but during one of the morning broadcasts on NBCsports, they had an interview with Pita Taufatopua. Who's he, you ask? Oh, you know he. He's the Tongan athlete who carries in their flag bare-chested and covered in oil. I chided that in my notes about the Opening Ceremonies, but I must say that it came as an absolute pleasure to listen to his interview. He's a bright, thoughtful and interesting guy, not the preening poppinjay he comes across with the flag. And it was fascinating to hear him talk about training for a winter sport, other than his expertise in tae kwan do for the Summer Olympics, because he likes being challenged. And his tale of training in the sand for cross-country skiing -- since there isn't snow in Tonga -- was a joy. Just another reason for it being worthwhile watching the NBCsports channel in the morning...
Speaking of reporters, I was disappointed by Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir last night, covering the men's short program in figure skating. Their analysis and conversation with anchor Terry Gannon was fine. But one of the things that separated them from their predecessors has been that they're willing to analyze during a skate and talk about what's going on, good and bad. But they were pretty silent most of the time last night during the skates. They weren't that way for the team competition, so I don't know what changed here. I hope it was a hiccup and things go back to otherwise. From the opening of tonight's pair's freeskate coverage over on NBCsports (which will be show later on NBC in edited form), happily they're doing a better job commenting during the stake.
Actually, this is as good a time as any to take a look at some of the other reporters during the broadcasts.
There are a number of in-studio hosts, starting with Mike Tirico as the anchor of the Games. He's a terrific play-by-play announcer, and I think that's his strength. But he's done well, and gotten better in what's his first Olympics in this position. It's hard not to compare him with his predecessor Bob Costas -- and going back further when the broadcasts were on ABC, Jim McKay -- though that's a bit unfair because he's new in the Olympics anchor chair (though he's been an in-studio host, so he's hardly a neophyte). And those other two are the gold standard. But he's a solid successor. His interviews have been good, and he knows his sports. If he has an area that's lacking , it's the sense of history that Costas and McKay brought to the chair, which always added great perspective and richness. Whether he'll grow into that, or if his style is just different, time will tell.
I mentioned Liam McHugh who is very good on NBCsports, extremely efficient, just a bit dry, but you always feel he has things in good control. And I think Carolyn Menno has been good there, as well. I am very much underwhelmed, though, with Rebecca Lowe, who was hosting on the NBC mothership over the weekend. Quite thin, and a bit empty for my taste.
Among the best pair has been Tom Holland and Joey Cheek who cover all the speed skating events. They have a very good rapport, and bring a good mix of straight-forward play-by-play, and informative commentary. Also very good have been Dan Hicks and Bode Miller with skiing. (And earlier draft referred to Al Trautwig being the anchor announcer, but that was wrong. I'd heard his name mentioned, but that turns out to have been in reference does cross-country.) I'm a bit surprised by Miller doing so well, since was a pretty dry interview when competing. But they work well together. Miller doesn't bring a great deal of personal detail to his analysis, but he makes up for it with a rich, deep well of skiing commentary.
I well-remember analyst Chris Salmala from the Winter Games four years ago, and it would be hard not to. He clearly loves his sport of cross-country skiing. And enthusiasm is important for a sport that risks being overwhelmingly boring. And to his credit, he lifts the sport from that and makes it fun to watch. But...whenever things even start to heat up at any point in the race -- and that could even be 300 meters into a 1,500 meter race, but always the last third -- HE GETS SO FREAKING EXCITED LIKE THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING YOU WILL EVER-EVER-EVER SEE IN YOUR LIFE!!!!! And honestly, it's a wee bit much...
To Salmala's credit, his enthusiasm is because he so-dearly loves the sport, not because he's a cheerleader like some of the other way-overly-enthusiastic analysts on some of the freestyle skiing events or "lesser" sports, and appear to be best-friends with all the Americans. That kind of enthusiasm drives me nuts.
Robert J. Elisberg is a two-time recipient of the Lucille Ball Award for comedy screenwriting. He's written for film, TV, the stage, and two best-selling novels, and is a regular columnist for the Huffington Post and the Writers Guild of America. Among his other writing, he has a long-time column on technology (which he sometimes understands), and co-wrote a book on world travel. As a lyricist, he is a member of ASCAP, and has contributed to numerous publications.
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