I've always loved Jimmy Durante, a legendary performer who probably isn't all that known these days -- I'd guess if younger moviegoers do know him at all it would be as 'Smiler Grogan," the convict who dies in a car crash at the beginning of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and before kicking the bucket (literally) tells a group of strangers where his stolen loot is stashed, setting off the maniacal chase that followers. His best movie, though, was most-likely the classic, The Man Who Came to Dinner, in which he played the character 'Banjo,' who was loosely based on Harpo Marx. He also had one of my all-time favorite movie lines in the popular 1962 movie, Jumbo, based on the Broadway musical by Rodgers & Hart, he was in back in 1935 ( -- it comes where's he's trying to sneak the massive elephant out of the circus. I won't give the joke away since I'll try to track down the scene). However, happily, the Great Schnozzola is probably better-recognized than most comedians who played vaudeville since a lot of his recordings are still used in movies, most notably "Make Someone Happy" at the end of Sleepless in Seattle.
Yes, it's a bit unlikely of a way for him to be remembered, since singing wasn't his strength, what with being a comedian (and a unique one at that), although for his gravelly voice, he had an impactful way of delivering a lyric.
One of the song he was know for was "September Song," written by Kurt Weill and the playwright Maxwell Anderson for the Broadway show Knickerbocker Holiday. And happily, we have a video of it from a TV broadcast in 1955.
Durante has a very long career, taking him into color television. So, as a bonus, here he is with the same song in 1972. One of the things about Jimmy Durante is that he seems to have been born looking like an old man. So, he could sing this for a long time. Even in his movies in the 1940s, he doesn't look all that much different than here. (His movie debut was back in 1930 -- and I wouldn't make a bet that he couldn't have sung "September Song" then, as well.)
Let's head back to What's My Line?, which we haven't gotten to for a while and another Mystery Guest. This time it's Debbie Reynolds, for her second appearance on the show. It's great fun, since she goes All Goofball and utterly confuses the panel with her well-intentioned lunacy.
I worked with Bob Costas briefly on the movie, BASEketball from David Zucker, that starred Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park. The times I got to talk to Costas -- on the set and at his home over the phone -- were a joy. He's a very smart, thoughtful, funny guy who's also very devoutly religious, but never wears it on his sleeve, but keeps it largely to himself. He talked about it a bit on the set, in private, yet never once made an issue of it. There was some concern how he'd react to some of the outlandish things the filmmakers wanted him to do, some of them a bit crude, but he never flinched. He was fine with it. It was all for the joke. In fact, he only had one small request for something to be cut, and that had absolutely nothing to do with his faith or personal beliefs about anything, but was only because of how it related to a family member of his that he felt uncomfortable doing. (The filmmakers happily made the cut for him.) He was a pleasure of a guy to talk with, open and friendly and very smart.
He also endeared himself to me when I had to call his office at his home in St. Louis to get some background material on him before the movie filming began. I expected to talk to his secretary, but it turned out she was off that day, and Costas didn't get a temporary fill-in and answered the call himself. We had a very enjoyable talk, and then I asked about him faxing me the information I needed. He said he'd be happy to get it to me, but wanted to know if I could wait a day. Sure, not a problem at all. It turned out that because his secretary was out, he, Bob Costas -- two-time Emmy Award winner, eight-time National Sportscaster of the year, member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame, 12-time host of the Olympics -- acknowledged that he was a technical Luddite and didn't know how to use his fax machine.
All of which brings us to his appearance yesterday on CNN, when he was asked to comment about the controversy surrounding Trump's slamming of NFL players as being a "son of a bitch" and calling for them to be fired, for protesting the killing of Blacks.
Costas, being Costas, is profoundly eloquent in his response -- and would be if it had been in a prepared address. That it is an extemporaneous response to a question is remarkable.
When someone in the public eye passes away, the media will ask other celebrities who knew the person for a comment. Usually, they get a very nice, simple few sentences about how highly the friend thought about the deceased and what a sad loss it is.
I came across this 2012 video by chance yesterday. It's Ron Howard talking to Entertainment Tonight after learning that day that Andy Griffith had died. And they don't get a few warm sentences from him -- they get four wonderful minutes, tender, thoughtful, insightful, eloquent and lovely. And the only reason the clip is four minutes is because they edited it down.
By the way, it shouldn't go overlooked that they had worked together almost half a century early, when Howard was just a little boy -- and stayed in touch all that time since. They did work together on occasional "reunion" events for The Andy Griffith Show, but this clearly was just a strong friendship. And not just between the two of them, but he talks about his father staying in touch with Griffith all that time.
I saw Hamilton yesterday at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles. I enjoyed it, it’s very well-done, and I’m glad I went. But I didn’t love it at the level the squeals of delight made clear the audience did. (That's one of the tangential things I do love about the show -- that it's brought a young audience to the theater.)
I'm glad that people do love the show. It's a very good musical and deserving of its praise. And any reasons my appreciation doesn't hit the same level has little to nothing to do with how others react. It's certainly a phenomenon, and I understand most of the reasons: it's vibrant and invigorating, and Lin-Manuel Miranda's work writing the book, music and lyrics is impressive -- and the show about something that resonates with people today, in large part an immigrant who defies all convention, overcomes hurdles, and becomes important in the politics of the nation.
And I did like and appreciate all that. And liked much of the songs, and thought the performances were solid, all done with very good staging over what is mostly a bare stage, with props brought in and out, and a great deal of movement.
To explain the "however..." is not to suggest I didn't like the show. As I said, I did like it, quite it bit. And even loved some of it. It is to be as clear as possible why, while liking it, I didn't respond with the adoration I'm aware of from others.
For all I did enjoy about the show throughout, it's also a sung-through musical, with almost no dialogue, and that's just not one of my favorite styles. A few shows have been able to pull it off wonderfully for my taste (most notably Sweeney Todd), but in general -- for me -- I find that dialogue can usually bring out the drama, humor and subtext of a scene better than singing everything. Songs tend to be at their best, for me, when they highlight a moment of emotion that exceeds the spoken word, but not so much when they're getting across conversation. (For the sake of perspective, I like Les Miserable, but am not enamored of it, for this same reason.) That's a general comment, and there are many exceptions, not just for whole shows, as mentioned, but also for extended sequences within a show. But for the most part, I find sung-through musicals a bit surface in getting across their story, while accepting that they often can have a spirited pace from the full-fabric of wall-to-wall music. And accepting that some people absolutely love them.
Also, and this is especially personal, I don't have a good ear for picking out rap lyrics. It's not that I don't like the songs or their driving pace, but rather than I personally have a difficult time making out all the words. (When I read books, for instance, I often like to pause, consider the phrasing, sometimes even flip back to check context. I certainly don't do that with songs, of course, but it's sort of the way my mind works, listening to structure and craft, as much as context.) That's hardly the songs' fault, but it's a reality for my reaction. As a result, I missed a good portion of what was being said here. I had a far-better time with the ballads, love songs or more standard material.
Not helping this was that I didn't think the sound system or acoustics at the Pantages were as ideal as I would have wished them. So, that impacted even more my hearing the details of what was going on.
In fairness, I did hear plenty. And I liked much of it. The first two songs are quite enjoyable, "Hamilton" and "My Shot." And King George's song, "You'll Be Back" (which is a traditional comic number) is terrific. I also very much enjoyed "Burn," sung by Hamilton's wife Eliza, burning his old love letters in building heartbreak after he writes a public mea culpa to put off accusations of bribery, when an affair he had has caused him to pay blackmail and threatens to come to light. It's a very good song, and movingly performed by Solea Pfeiffer.
But for all the cleverness and drive of much of the lyrics -- that I heard -- some quite intricate and at times, amazingly ingenious, I also found more of the lyrics ordinary and forced than I prefer, sort of pushed out to fit the driving pace of the rap. They're often very effective for the sensibility of the songs, but as structured numbers there are too many false-rhymes for my taste. (I take rhyming very seriously -- if you're going to rhyme, that's the point, do so. Don't come close. When I hear a false rhyme, even when it works well, I'll often think the moment I hear it, "Oh, he couldn't come up with an actual rhyme," and it takes me out of the moment, never a good thing.)
Having said all this, what I will also try to do now, after having seen the show, is listen to the cast recording of Hamilton and have a lyric sheet with me, so that I can follow-through it all and get a better grasp on what all is there. I have absolutely no doubt that there will be much about it that I will appreciate far more. (In fact, my suggestion to anyone who plans to see the musical is that they do this beforehand, listen to the cast recording a few times to become familiar with it. Usually, I'm loathe to do such a thing, preferring to "discover" a new show as it was intended, but I think it would help here. For that matter, it seems to have been the case with much of the younger audience, which appeared to be thoroughly familiar with the songs and often cheer material as it began.)
I liked the second act more than the first. That's not "damning with faint praise" -- I thought the second act was pretty good, dealing with the founding of the government and early years of formulating the United States. And it did a strong job dealing with intertwining characters, romance, betrayals and politics, The first act is mostly about the Revolutionary War period, and I found it a bit perfunctory. Like when Hamilton meets the man who will become the Father of Our Country, and they basically sing -- I'm exaggerating here, but not much -- , "General Washington, I'm Alexander Hamilton," "I've heard good things about you, you're hired." (This also relates, in part, to what I said above about songs not always being as effective as dialogue.) To be very fair, I completely understand that trying to encapsulate the Revolutionary War in one act is a monumentally thankless task, and they handle it with an expansive flair that's energizing. But daunting as the challenge is, it was their choice to tackle it, and the first act was too brusque for me.
(I don't mean this at all snidely, and hesitate to include mention for that reason, but I think it adds perspective, that Stan Freberg managed it in his classic The United States of America. Yes, that was a parody, and a record album, and he wasn't dealing with rich emotions and human intricacies. So, it's hardly close to a fair comparison. But the point is that Freberg. using dialoge and song, managed it, and in much less time. And yes, of course, there are many things in the first act that Hamilton manages far better than Freberg.)
I have a feeling that I would have been more involved with the show had I seen it with Lin-Manuel Miranda in his original starring role. Not that Michael Luwoye wasn't good -- in fact, he was very good, as were almost all the performers. But having himself written the difficult songs, I sense that Miranda knew them inside-out and they likely flowed naturally from him, which is critical with the unrelenting flow of rap. But with some of the performers here, it just seemed like they were at times fighting to get the rhythm and pacing of some of the raps out properly, and it occasionally took me out of the moment. And a show, while always better with "The Best" cast, shouldn't rely on that cast to get everything across effectively.
(Okay, one cast quibble. The actor who plays Lafayette, Jordan Donica, does so weeez such a beeeg gartooneeesh French agzennnt that almost the only word I got was "Lafayette." He doubles as Thomas Jefferson and is far better there, though a bit too fopishly over-the-top for my taste, though I suspect that's how the character is written.)
To be very clear, which I fear might be lost at this point, even having had my disclaimer above, I really did like the show. And also loved parts of it. Why I've gone into much more explanation of the various things that didn't grab me personally is because the show has become such a phenomenon that I find it less important here to say all the reasons why I liked it (which have rightly been written about and praised extensively elsewhere for several years since its opening), than it instead being far-more explain myself, explain the reasons why while I quite liked it I wasn't up in the rafters with much of the rest of the audience. This here is not why I didn't like the show -- I did like it (as I trust has come through) -- but why my appreciation didn't reach the exalted level of so many others.
It's personal. And much of it even has nothing to do with the show itself, but my own limitations, not to mention theater acoustics. I get why it's such a hit, and I'm glad for it. And I'm glad I saw it and had a good time. There's much memorable about it. And it's an impressive work. I just -- personally -- like many other shows I've seen more. Personal taste and all.
Here's a scene from the show's presentation at the 70th annual Tony Awards, the Battle of Yorktown. And oddly, though happily, I think it pretty much supports all that I said above, because I like this performance much more than this number done at the Pantages. It's clearer, crisper, with better sound and with a smooth performance by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and a Lafayette I could actually understand.
Last night, I watched a wonderful little film on DVD that was released earlier this year, Wakefield. It stars Bryan Cranston and Jennifer Garner, based on a fascinating short story by E.L. Doctorow (who wrote Ragtime and Billy Bathgate).
Cranston is really the core of the story though and he gives a gem of a performance. Basically it’s about a man having what could best be described as a massive midlife crisis and runs away from his family – except he hides in the attic of their coach house garage and watches his wife and two kids from there. (There’s more, but that’s the focus of the story, told entirely from his perspective.)
To give full credit to Garner, she gives a very good performance as her character has to range from anger at her husband not getting back to her, concern at his disappearance, the challenge of having to take new responsibility for the family, deciding whether to move on with her life and more, -- most of it done in a sort of "pantomime" since Cranston can't hear much of what she's saying. Though Cranston still is the omnipresence in everything.
A major challenge of the film is to take such an unbelievable premise -- a husband living in the family's garage for such a long period and not only not being discovered, but simply surviving -- and make us accept it. And the film pulls it off, coming up with a thoughtful, well-crafted development. I'm sure this was a hurdle in the Doctorow short story, as well, although in that literary form so much is left to the reader's imagination that I suspect a great deal of the gaps are filled in. A movie is more literal, so the demands of making this "real" are likely higher. And that makes it all the more impressive how successful the effort is.
The movie was written & directed by Robin Swicord who wrote the screenplays for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Matilda, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Little Women, among others, and both wrote and directed The Jane Austen Book Club. (She also wrote a charming little film, Shag, that oddly enough I wrote the presskit for back in my dark days in PR.)
By the way, among her other credits, she co-produced Matilda, Little Women and the actress (and writer) Zoe Kazan.
Because of the psychologically claustrophobic nature of the story -- even though a lot of it does not take place in the garage attic -- this is a difficult film to capture properly in a trailer. But I thought they did a solid job, given the inherent hurdles.
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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