Happy Sheldon Harnick Day 2021
Today is the 97th birthday of Broadway lyricist Sheldon Harnick, who won a Tony Award for Fiddler on the Roof, a Tony and Pulitzer Price for Fiorello!, and such other musicals with Jerry Bock as She Loves Me, The Apple Tree, The Rothschilds, Rex (with Richard Richard Rodgers), and the opera Captain Jinks and the Horse Marines -- and much more.
I interviewed him years ago when I was a student at Northwestern, and he returned to campus as Homecoming Grand Marshal. I then made a radio documentary from it for the school radio station, WNUR, and two decades later finally tracked down his address through a mutual friend to send him a copy. And when I told my mother after all that time that I finally found someone who knew where Harnick lived, she said, "Oh, you mean, Aunt Joan?" I was floored. I never had any idea that they grew up together and went to college together. Though. no, she didn't have her address. When I sent him the radio documentary though and explained my further connection, he sent a handwritten note back, and the first line was, "OH, MY GOD!!! JOAN SERED!!! (which was her maiden name. And yes, this is the Aunt Joan who I wrote about here a few Januarys ago for her surprise 90th birthday party.) Though they've periodically crossed paths over the many decades, I was able to get them together 14 years ago when we all saw a production of his show She Loves Me at the Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois. (And yes, this was the production I've written about several times that starred Jessie Mueller before she left for Broadway and won a Tony Award for starring in the musical Beautiful.)
But enough of all that. On with the show. Here's a wonderful, hour-long interview with Sheldon Harnick at the Kennedy Center seven years ago when he was 90, and you'll see he's vibrant and entertaining. Know too that this isn't just an interview, but includes several of his songs from wonderful performers.
And here's one of my favorite of his lesser-known songs, "In My Own Lifetime," from The Rothschilds, which starred Hal Linden who won the Tony Award as Best Actor. Harnick writes poetically and richly with the simplicity of almost everyday language, which is his hallmark. Years ago, when I made that aforementioned radio documentary for the college station, I ended it with this song -- which I preceded with a clip of Harnick talking about how he'd like people to listen to his songs and say, "Yeah. Yeah, that's true."
And we'll end our celebration with this video from three years ago -- when Harnick was 94 -- singing absolutely wonderfully one of his classics, "Do You Love Me?" from Fiddler on the Roof with Judy Blazer.
Give Me Your Address
After Joe Biden's Presidential Address to Congress the other night, a friend commented that what he liked was how Biden delivered his speech as if he was talking to the American public watching, not to the members of Congress in attendance, most likely because the room -- which normally seats around 1,200 people -- only had about 400 and so delivering the speech to such a smaller group made a more personal approach the best way to go.
While my friend may have been right, what I said is that whatever the number of people sitting in the House of Representatives, when a president gives his address to Congress, he should always do so in a way that is speaking to the American public, not those people present. After all, 30 million viewers is more than 1,200 members of Congress and their guests. I'm sure the natural inclination when giving a speech to 1,200 people in front of you is that you talk to them -- but still, 30 million people watching at home remains a larger number than 1,200 people in attendance.
It turns out that talking directly to the American public, rather than having them just listening in as you give an address has its benefits. The approval rating that President Biden got for the speech was an amazing 85%. Almost as amazing was that 71% of Americans said that they felt better about the direction of the country after hearing the speech.
In fairness, I suspect most people who hate the sitting-president don't tend to watch a Presidential Address to Congress, so that likely skews the numbers higher. But not only has Joe Biden not yet built up an antipathy after just 100 days in office that would keep all or most Republicans away, but his general approval thus far is reasonably good.
What I also suspect helped the public reaction is what President Biden said in his speech was pretty positive. In fact, as I was watching, I wondered at one point how many people could be against this. Yes, I know I'm biased in my support of what he was talking about, but nonetheless -- most people are for ending the pandemic, helping families and creating new industries that create new jobs. The only people who seem not to be are Republican members of Congress and recalcitrant Trump supporters still upset that the insurrection didn't work.
And even those people were struggling to find things not to like. For Republicans in Congress, it's tough to keep complaining about the cost of things people really like, when you passed a $3 trillion tax cut for the wealthy, which most people didn't like -- except the wealthy. And for Republicans who want to get into Congress, there was a tweet from JD Vance, a conservative Republican venture capitalist who wrote the memoir Hillbilly Elegy and is considering a run for an open Senate seat in Ohio. He wrote about one of President Biden's proposals in his family bill that "'Universal Day Care' is class warfare against normal people."
While I'm sure there are people against Universal Day Care, I'm not quite sure what "normal people" would be, especially to the extent of going to class war to stop it. The best I can guess is that, at least as a starting point of "normal people" is single people who don't have children or jobs. Not limited to that, of course, but just as a foundation to build on. In fairness, I'm also sure there are people against pretty much anything, including puppies and pizza, so being against Universal Day Care isn't inherently a notable achievement, even for normal people.
The good news is that normal people being against Universal Day Care is a step up from the most common GOP issues today of Dr. Seuss, Mr. Potato Head, going to bakeries and giving books to immigrant children. Not all that much better, but better, which is one of the advantages of being on the side of normal people.
The problem for today's Republican Party is that if they actually go after the normal people vote, they're in serious trouble. Unless they go by JD Vance's definition which, at the moment, is still undetermined.
And so, the result is that there stands President Joe Biden with an 85% approval of his Presidential address and 71% of Americans feeling better after hearing it for the direction the country is going. This is just the reaction to one speech, of course. But responses aren't that high -- normally.
On the House
The other day, I posted a piece that CBS This Morning did about the song "Strange Fruit" that Billie Holiday famously recorded and focused the story on its writer, Abel Meerapol. Alas, CBS This Morning didn't hold up their end of the bargain and deleted their own video. Nonetheless, at the end of the report when it did initially air, they mentioned that Meerapol also wrote the words to the song the reporter mistakenly called "What is America to Me?", though its actual name is "The House I Live." And she noted that Frank Sinatra had had success with the song.
Although Frank Sinatra did record the song and sang it throughout his career, the impression given was that he introduced the song, but in fact it was written for a musical Let Freedom Sing in 1942. Sinatra did popularize it, however, when he starred in a short 10-minute film, The House I Live In, in which he sang the song. The short was released in 1945 and won a special Oscar. It was made, in part, to combat anti-Semitism as the end of WWII, which makes one change to the song in the film all the more surprising -- they only sang the first verse and cut the second...which has the line about "my neighbors black and white," a cut which enraged lyricist Meerapol and he protested.
Also notable is that the song was equally made famous earlier by the great Paul Robeson. Which adds a bit of irony to the song's history, since he was later blacklisted. As was Earl Robinson who wrote the music. And Albert Maltz, who wrote the Special Oscar-winning film that brought the song to the wider American public was one of the famous Hollywood 10 screenwriters, who were jailed for defying the House Un-American Activies Committee looking into Communism in the U.S. And Abel Meerapol felt he had to use a pseudonym for his work, Lewis Allan.
Here is Paul Robeson especially-wonderful recording of "The House I Live In" -- with the second verse intact. This should also be a treat to anyone who hasn't heard Paul Robeson sing. By the way, know that Paul Robeson starred in the original 1936 movie of Show Boat and brought "Old Man River" to fame. In fact he was cast in the original 1927 Broadway stage production and was supposed to introduce the song, but the musical got delayed, schedules got changed and he had to bow out -- though did play the role when the show opened in London's West End. Also...well, I'll be posting more about Other Things Robeson upcoming.
And as a bonus, this is that aforementioned Special Oscar-winning 10-minute movie -- without the second verse. (If for some reason the video does play, since I've been having some trouble with it embedding, just click on the link here.)
The Little Conundrummer Boy
I realized a conundrum the other day. It's one I don't expect to resolve, because its foundation is based on insanity. But that doesn't make it any less a conundrum.
One the one hand, we have this mass of people on the far right who are so outraged at China for supposedly being the cause of the deep hell that the United States (and world) have gone through for the past year, as the COVID-19 coronavirus spread and disrupted all of our lives due to the life-threatening dangers it brings from infection and has killed 588,238 Americans so far. And this anger at China has been so pronounced and virulent that hate crimes against people from China or even against people who just look like they're probably from China or look like they may have ancestors from China.
On the other hand, we have basically this same mass of people on the far right who think that COVID-19 is a hoax and not any worse than the flu, and that face masks don't do anything and so there's no need to wear them, and that social distancing is not even remotely necessary, and that they won't take the vaccine and that businesses should be allowed to open and schools should open and that life should be totally normal since all is okay.
I just have no idea how people can hold both these diametrically polar-opposite views. Thinking that China is supposedly so horrible for being the cause of all this infection that has disrupted our life and killed almost 600,000 Americans -- and at the same time think that everything should be normal and that no precautions are necessary at all because COVID-19 is a hoax and everything is, in fact, pretty much fine.
As I said at the beginning, I don't think there is any way to resolve this conundrum, which has a gap so wide that it makes the Grand Canyon it looks like a paper cut. When an opinion has no foundation in reality and is untenable, yet becomes core to to a person's belief system, that alone is enough to become an unmovable object. When it's two such opinions without foundation in reality -- and they contradict each other -- yet are both core to a person's belief system, it is more a case of the fabled unmovable object meeting the unstoppable force, but within a single person, which is likely closer to the kind of chain reaction that causes an atomic bomb going off in that person non-stop. Which may explain a) why it is unresolvable, and b) why we now see so many on the far right acting with such insanity, manifesting itself in things like insurrection, voter suppression, defense of killing unarmed minorities and believing a totally anonymous conspiracy leader without having the slightest idea where on earth its lunatic pronouncements come from because from all those inner-explosions you have caused in yourself you are in desperate need of some direction, any direction, and are willing to accept anything that sounds like it's something you want to believe in, no matter how insane it is, since you probably can't tell.
So...no, I don't expect to resolve the conundrum. But recognizing it at least helps know where not to step to avoid mucking up your shoes.
And hey, even if there's no resolution, happily we can always face it with a song...
A Short "Long Shot"
A couple nights ago, I watched a 40-minute documentary short on Netflix streaming called Long Shot. It’s not aesthetic filmmaking – though it’s very nicely done, telling the tale extremely well...but what leaps out is that it's the most amazing story, with several twists that if you saw it in a fiction movie you’d think it was ridiculous. I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s about a young man wrongfully arrested for murder.
(in fact, if you do watch it, try to even avoid the Netflix description, because the less you know, the more the surprises will leap out.)
I did know about one of the big twists, but not the main one – and when that one comes along I could only stare at the screen and go, “Oh, my God.” And then it twists further.
Again, without giving anything away, I think a lot of people will be aware of something related to that main big twist. And oddly, for reasons I won't get into, I shouldn't have been -- but even I knew about it. And that it comes into play here is really quite utterly stunning. And when it reaches it's pinnacle, you're just in awe of how life sometimes works out, against all imaginable odds.
I looked into posting the trailer here, but it gives away some of the twists, and I don't want to give away any. I did see a User Comment from someone who wrote, "This is the kind of story they should make movies about." Except that if they made this movie, and even said it was a true story, you'd still probably think they were making things up. Including the cliché that the prosecuting attorney had never lost a murder trial.
The documentary zips by pretty quickly and is really enjoyable.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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