The #Metoo Crucible

“Stratford Festival decided to put on a sure-fire crowd-pleaser this year: “The Crucible”, one of the greatest, and certainly the most powerful, American drama.

“The Crucible” is about a group of young girls in a small town in Massachusetts in the 1690’s who are caught dancing naked in a woods.  Think about the cultural climate– puritanical New England.  The upstanding leaders of the devout community are beyond horrified, and this is immediately apparent to the girls so they connive to persuade the town elders that they were, in fact, bewitched.  Their deception is helped by a particular girl who seems to be having fits and hysterics and claims to see apparitions.

Who bewitched them?

They begin to name names, including upstanding members of the community.

One of the girls, named Abigail, was a handmaid to a couple, John and Elizabeth Proctor.  John had an affair with her, which Elizabeth knows about.  John and Elizabeth reconciled and evicted Abigail but are terrified that the community will find out about the affair and disgrace John.

Abigail is convinced that John really loves her.  What were the girls doing in the woods?  Abigail had persuaded Tituba, a black slave, to show them how to cast spells, so she could curse Elizabeth Proctor and win John back.  With the community in hysterics, and her own position in the community under threat, she seizes the opportunity to accuse Elizabeth of witchcraft.

When some in the community become suspicious of the girls’ motives, they too are named.  Eventually, 20 citizens are hanged, and one is “pressed” to death because he refused to enter a plea.  Yes, this really happened– the historical record is unmistakable.

Years later, the magistrates who condemned them would– astonishingly– come to the realization that they had been in error and issue an apology.  How often does that happen?

Arthur Miller wrote the play in 1952 and he clearly intended to draw a parallel between the Salem witch-hunts and the McCarthy communist witch-hunt that was taking place at that moment, and which had snared Miller himself.  Miller was called before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) and admitted that he had been a communist at one time in his life.  That was not enough for them.  They demanded that he identify fellow-travelers.  He refused and was black-listed.

In the play, as in real life, a man named Giles Corey discovered that some of the accusers stood to benefit by acquiring the land of the accused (if convicted of witchcraft, a citizen’s possessions were forfeit).  He is then accused of witchcraft himself.  He refuses to plea because doing so would result in a conviction and the land he hoped to pass on to his sons would be forfeit.  He is sentenced to be “pressed”: placed under a board with the weight on it increased gradually with rocks.  He dies under the torment, mocking his accusers.

Do you see a problem with this play?  I don’t see a problem.  The play is historically accurate.  More importantly, it is psychologically accurate: I find the portrait of a community that is fearful and cowardly and not really virtuous in the sense that they all believe it of themselves to be quite convincing even today.  (Think of how we symbolically recycle, and conserve, and care for the environment, while doing absolutely nothing that will have any real impact on global warming.   Think of how women go on national television to tell the world how ashamed they are of having been sexually assaulted.)

But the #metoo movement saw a big problem.  You see, a credo of the #metoo movement is that girls are ALWAYS to be believed.  They never lie about abuse or rape or assault, even if it is assault by the devil himself, as in the case of Salem.  (I am not exaggerating: I heard three women on the CBC discussing the issue and they all insisted that women never lie about abuse and there is never any “collateral damage” (ie. innocent men accused).  Do women ever lie about rape?  Judge for yourself.

And the play makes it clear that the girls are sly, conniving, convincing liars, and that they are responsible the deaths of 20 innocent victims.

So the #metoo movement demands an adjustment.   And the Stratford Festival Theatre made it.  Here is their description of the play from their website:

His (John Proctor’s) refusal to take responsibility for his actions leads to an epidemic of fear and suspicion that engulfs the guilty and the innocent alike. Inspired by historical events but no less pertinent to our own times, this American classic stands as a timeless tragedy of abusive behaviour and its all-consuming consequences.

This is worse than a distortion of the play.  It is an obscenely malicious reversal of it’s meaning.  It is all John Proctor’s fault.  The girls are innocent.  Abigail was forced to lie because she was oppressed by the patriarchy.  They were justified in causing 19 innocent individuals to be hanged to death.

Abigail didn’t enjoy seeing those people hanged.  Not at all.

Or maybe the girls were telling the truth after all: maybe there really were witches.

No young woman or girl would ever lie about that.

Dear Evan Hansen

Evan Hansen is bullied at school, particularly by one Conner Murphy. When Evan, at the direction of his therapist, starts writing encouraging letters to himself, Conner finds one in a printer tray and, mocking Evan, takes it. When Conner commits suicide later, his parents find the letter and come to believe that Conner wrote it, to Evan. So he wasn’t such a bully after all. Conner’s hot sister, Zoe, is at first reluctant to believe it but Evan, invited to the Murphy house for dinner, eventually convinces her that her parent’s misunderstanding is true, that Conner really was a friend to Evan. He goes so far as to persuade his friend, Jared, to help him write fake emails to “prove” his story, and helps his friend Alana start a foundation to build a park in memory of Conner. And Evan clearly enjoys being the center of attention, all the while protesting that he doesn’t, really, seriously, not at all. A lot of “oh no– I can’t believe you noticed me. Oh my god, what am I going to do now! I’m so embarrassed.”

The important thing to understand about “Dear Evan Hansen” is, firstly, that Evan is a lying, self-pitying narcissist with whom we are expected to sympathize. He abuses the trust of the Murphy family. He is not so much clueless about the damage he is doing as so self-centred that he doesn’t care. The second is that Evan is obviously gay, though the musical doesn’t acknowledge it, and, in fact, pretends that he really has the hots for Zoe. He clearly talks gay, acts gay, and demonstrates almost no convincing heterosexual interest in Zoe. At one point, Conner’s parents even wonder if he and Conner had a sexual relationship, but this being 2018, that is treated as something not to be embarrassed about. His interest in Zoe is a device to make you feel sorry for him in spite of his self-pitying and his narcissism.

The low point in the trajectory of this story is when his mother blames herself for Evan’s incredibly damaging prevarications: because she didn’t give him enough attention. No heterosexual male relates to his mother this way. There is nothing attractive about this bumbling, self-centered, pathetic whiner. And Zoe is most attractive when she disbelieves him, and becomes progressively weak as a character when she subverts her instincts to provide a convenient plot point for Evan’s complete emasculation.

“Dear Evan Hansen” won six Tony awards.  I can only conclude that the judges were carried away by their enthusiasm for the very predictable message about bullying.  I didn’t find the music very distinguished, or the staging inventive, or the acting, in the Toronto version, all that moving.  The social media angle is fresh, but not particularly deep or provocative: it draws no conclusions about the nature of this massive, sudden explosion of notoriety via the internet.

For the real deal about teen angst, mutating sexual identify, and generational conflict, see the marvelous “Spring Awakening” instead, if you can.

Don’t Cry for Me Wicked Witches

Universal Pictures, the film company, owns and produced “Wicked”, the Broadway Musical. You might think, why is a film company with much bigger fish to fry, dabbling in musicals? The answer is simple: “Wicked” is the most profitable venture in the history of Universal Pictures. Why? The answer is again, simple: how much did your last movie ticket cost you? Oh yeah? Well a ticked to see “Wicked” will cost you about ten times that amount. Multiply that times 3,000 a night, for, say 300 nights, and you have an idea of the scale of the venture. Even with all the dancers and musicians and make-up artists and set-designers and so on, you can make a lot of money.  Yes, we’re talking 50, 60, 70 million dollars.

So we arrive at the real why question. And that answer is also simple. Broadway aint what it used to be. Leaving aside the question of whether “Wicked” is more interesting artistically than “Oklahoma” or “All That Jazz” or “Mame”, the people who go to Broadway shows are largely tourists, in New York (no other location of a stage production has nearly the influence), who want something utterly remarkable and amazing which they can tell their friends about when they get back home to Peoria or Austin or Sioux City: we saw “Wicked”. It was FABULOUS. Oh, you gotta see it live: it just blew me away!

It is possible to produce a stunning Broadway show, nowadays, without any of the difficult artistic stuff involved. Well, all right: someone still has to write dialogue and music and learn how to play an instrument. Then you mic everyone and turn up the sound system and throw in a few pyrotechnics, and you have a hit.

Then why did “Spiderman” bomb? Okay, so even with all the resources of Broadway’s technical departments, you still need magic, the elusive unquantifiable indefinable thing that makes people want to rush home and tell all their friends they saw your production.

Right now, Broadway is dominated by “Bridges of Madison County”, “Bullets Over Broadway”, “Big Fish”, “Rocky”. There are plans to make “Animal House”, “Back to the Future”, Tootsie”, and “The Devil Wears Prada” into Broadway musicals.

Convergence. Towards the lowest common denominator. My wife and I saw “Hair” a few years ago, and “Godspell” last year, on Broadway. “Hair” originated on Broadway and became a movie. It was Broadway that had the courage and audacity to present a hippie musical on stage. More timid Hollywood wanted a proven success, which “Hair” was a after a few years on Broadway. Hollywood does not take risks. It almost never, lately, takes artistic risks. Want to see an artistic risk? Stop drooling over Leonardo Di Caprio– he never appears in an artistically audacious film, even if it is Martin Scorcese directing. Has Martin Scorcese directed anything as remotely daring as “Taxi Driver” or “Raging Bull” lately?

To see a movie that takes artistic risks, you need to check out the independent films like “Before Midnight”, “Blancanieves”, “The Artist”, “Moonrise Kingdom”, “The White Ribbon”, “Junebug”.

So all we need is for Hollywood to start running Broadway. But there is a reason a Broadway ticket costs about ten times as much as a movie ticket. It is because Broadway has a luster to it, a glow, a sense of marvel and authenticity and originality that most Hollywood movies lack. It is because Broadway embraces risk, and change, and real emotions. Hollywood, like a huge, ugly remora, wants to attach itself to this luster. But first it needs to eliminate the risk (and originality) and homogenize the experience (nothing with a genuine edge) and castrate it. Once Broadway is safe for Hollywood, there will be a lot of happy tourists who will get exactly what they expected and will experience the delusion of having seen something that can be mistaken for a Broadway production. And they will invariably say that it was better than the film version because they damned well paid ten times as much to see it.

You know what’s up when you hear people involved in stage productions talk about how important it is that the audience not leave the theatre disappointed. You get the feeling that the disappointment they are talking about is exactly that: “I paid ten times as much as for a movie ticket and I couldn’t even understand the damn play! What a waste!” And so long to “Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf” and “Equus” and “Cabaret” and “All that Jazz” and “The Book of Mormon”.

The irony of all this, of course, is that Broadway itself tends to play it safe lately, and the really daring, original Broadway productions almost always originate off-Broadway, or in London, or somewhere else. Broadway has its own cult of celebrity and a play often does poorly once the famous star moves on. Where do stars originally come from? They come from off-Broadway productions, independent films, and, so it appears, home-made porn films.

What if Hollywood had this great idea and decided that they would establish a street in Los Angeles and they would put on stage versions of their films and charge over $100 a ticket? They would never do that. No one would come. Because it wasn’t “Broadway”. They will fix that.

The Pernicious Influence of Joseph Campbell’s Mythological Insights on Hollywood

[this article is still in the “thinking aloud” stage.]

Firstly, let’s get one thing clear: it’s the influence that is pernicious– not Joseph Campbell, the author.

Campbell argued that all stories are essentially variations of the same basic archetype, the hero sets out on a journey, undergoes some arduous trials, is challenged and almost fails, encounters a mentor or inspiration, re-engages the challenge, succeeds, and lives happily ever after, or dies like Jesus Christ.

All right– I’m playing with that a bit.

Which not to say that I am particularly dazzled by Campbell’s work. Some people write about him as if no one before him had ever written thoughtfully about the essential elements of tragedy. In fact, the Greeks did, long before Campbell came along, and Shakespeare himself seemed to have the formula down pat.

No, no– my problem is that I don’t like the concept of a “hero”, and even if I did like it, I don’t believe that there is any real-life correspondence to the idea– it’s all fantasy. It’s all usually male fantasy. It’s all sometimes a bit fascist, as in “300”.

It would be more interesting– but far less popular– to identify the delusions the general public demands from hero-worshipping tales.  Firstly, that all other characters must defer to the hero; secondly, that his acts of violence are palatable because it is established that his enemies are unworthy or have sex.  Thirdly, that people worship heroes even though the actions of the “heroes” in real life highlight the deficiencies in the rest of us.

Think about a mother who neglectfully allows her baby in a stroller to roll into the street.  The “hero” sees the baby and rescues it and returns it to the mother.  In the Campbell story, the mother is eternally grateful and worships the hero for his timely act.  In real life, the hero’s action is a rebuke to the mother for her carelessness, something she will not want to highlight or be reminded of.

Real life is far more complex than Campbell’s mythic delusions.

And “Star Wars” is a crappy “B” movie that accidentally became the object of millions of people’s fetishistic enjoyment.  They are happy they get it.  Unlike “A Space Odyssey” and “Blade Runner”, it is immediately comprehensible, and just as immediately ridiculous.

More on “The Hero With a Thousand Faces”.



Apparently, Godspell is being revived on Broadway this year. The title “Godspell”, by the way, is not meant to suggest some kind of spiritual magic: “Godspell” comes from the old English words for “good word”, which also evolved into the more familiar “gospel”.

There was “Jesus Christ Superstar” and there was “Godspell”. Superstar was incredibly polished, elaborate, and ambitious. It was sophisticated and complex. It was an opera. Godspell was like the country bumpkin cousin, all jocularity and clowning, but, underneath it all, as conventional and conformist as the church in the wild dell. Astonishingly, Christians still objected to it, because the cast looked like hippies, and because, after all, Jesus was portrayed as a clown.

Here’s an oddity. John-Michael Tebelak, a student at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote the musical while he was still in college, as a masters thesis. He died of a heart attack April 2, 1985 (age 35).

Jeffrey Mylett, cast member, died May 7th, 1986 (AIDS).

Lamar Alford, died April 4, 1991, age 47, cause of death not disclosed.

David Haskell, died of brain cancer, age 52, August 30th, 2000.

Lynne Thigpen, cast member: cerebral hemorrhage, age 54, March 12th, 2003.

Merrell Jackson (one of the apostles), February 23, 1991, age 39. His cause of death is conspicuously unmentioned anywhere on the web. He could sing, he could act, he could dance: let me guess.

[Sonia Manzano, another cast member, clearly implies it was AIDS.]

Two members of the celebrated Toronto production (May 1972-August 1973),  also died young:  Gerry Salsberg, June 22, 2010, in a car accident, and Nancy Dolman, natural causes, August 21, 2010.  She was married to Martin Short.

Victor Garber, who played Jesus in Toronto, performed the same role in the movie.

Tebelak was both a believer and a hippie, and Godspell shows it. I’d always regarded it as charming at some level, but sloppy and unfocussed, which is another way of saying it shows its roots as an improvised piece that was taken in different directions at different stages of development. The deciding factor of its success seems to have been the involvement of Stephen Schwartz, though some seem to think the original score by Duane Bolick was more authentic, more rock’n’roll. We’ll never know– I’ve never heard of it being available anywhere. On the internet? Duane Bolick doesn’t seem to exist. He’s probably dead.

Here’s another oddity. The original, with the music by Duane Bolick, was a smash success among the small crowds that saw it at Carnegie Mellon, and when it first went to New York. So, if you have a smash success, you want to throw out the music, right, and rewrite it? I don’t know what to make of that. The template for this kind of makeover is Hollywood, which almost always cuts the heart and soul out of a story before castrating it into innocuous vehicle for Leonardo Di Caprio. But there was a more immediate template: James Rado and Gerome Ragni’s Hair. Hair (1968), like Godspell, seems to be about the rock’n’roll generation, and outwardly acknowledges rock music, but it is structurally, heart and soul, a Broadway musical. It should be: the composer, Canadian Galt MacDermot, had never encountered hippies before being contacted by Rado and Ragni to write the musical.

Many people, including cast members who played in both versions, concede that Stephen Schwartz is a genius, and that he made it sound more clever and polished and sophisticated. Like Barry Manilow and Bette Midler?

And here’s another oddity: Stephen Schwartz also came from Carnegie Mellon University. And yet another oddity: many of the original cast members, and the director, who happened to be John Michael Tebelak, made it all the way to the Broadway version. Tebelak was even involved in the movie script. Surely someone has written a Hollywood movie about this plot: sincere, visionary hippie writes a musical that rocks the world, transport him and his cast to Broadway, and wins a Tony.

Of course they didn’t really win a Tony, but Hollywood doesn’t care if it really happened or not.  It understands perfectly that movie audiences want to be spoon fed harmless illusions.

The movie version of Godspell is set on the streets of New York, including an extraordinary sequence with cast members dancing and singing on window washer platforms and on the roof of the unfinished World Trade Center. It’s all a bit precious in some ways, but it’s also a courageous attempt to take the gospel out of the sterile Mayberry of Andy vintage, and it’s own quiet irrelevance, into a vital, crackling, youthful urban setting: God speaks to the twin towers! It remains startling in concept, which is outrageous considering that it is 2012, but it’s even more outrageous that Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann campaign for president as if it were the 1950’s, devout and puritanical, and ragingly hypocritical. God rules everything when it comes to prayer in schools and abstinence training, but his authority is severely limited when it comes to stewardship of the environment: drill baby, drill.

Tebelak’s Jesus, by the way, is a bit sanctimonious. When John the Baptist/Judas almost uses his name in vain, he slaps him, and the rest of the troupe are aghast when Judas almost slaps him back. It’s a weird scene. This is not a new age Jesus, sheep-like, tolerant, inclusive. It’s a strong moment in the play and I am amazed that the considerable forces of homogenization and pleasant superficial conformity didn’t filter it out.

At one point in Godspell, in the movie version, the cast is dancing on top of the roof of the unfinished World Trade Center.  The shot was taken from a helicopter.  It is remarkable.

Anything like that (along with other scenes on roofs and windows washer platforms) shot today would have been green screened, so enjoy it while you can. It’s pretty amazing.

The Original Cast album, the first recorded version of Godspell, was recorded in one day, and sounds like it.

There are copies of the original theatrical trailer for Godspell online. You will be shocked. The trailer seems to illuminate aspects of the movie. The cuts are several seconds long. There are no helicopters, explosions, or naked women. The purpose actually seems to be to give you some kind of idea of what kind of movie Godspell is.

More on Godspell.

More not on Godspell:

At the 1969 Tony Awards, “Hair” lost out to “1776” for best musical. You remember “1776”, don’t you?

One of the reasons Eugene Levy says he lost out on the role of Christ in the Toronto production was that he looked too Jewish. And also too hairy.

Take a Trip to New York

Hi Marg,

We had a great trip to New York. “Hair” was fantastic, and the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) was also fabulous. We hung around Times Square for a while– it looks like a very interesting place– lots of glitter and lots of people around– but not much to actually do except grab a coffee at Starbucks and hang out. However, if you don’t have tickets in advance, you can buy heavily discounted tickets for Broadway shows there by lining up in front of a TKTS booth and seeing what is available. These tickets are typically 40% off, available for shows that night, most of which are in easy walking distance of the stand. You can’t miss the booth– it’s right in Times Square. We didn’t use it because we already had our tickets, and you wouldn’t have been able to get tickets for “Hair” there anyway.

We loved MOMA. It’s on 53rd St. near 7th Avenue– it’s closed on Tuesdays! Especially the 5th and 4th floors, which had a lot of Picasso and other modern artists. Beautiful building, and we really enjoyed lunch in the café on the 2nd floor. You can take pictures (no flash) and most paintings are unprotected (no glass barriers). Right now they are also showing this “installation” that consists of the possessions of a Chinese woman who “kept everything”. It’s actually quite intriguing.

If you want a great view, there is Empire State Building of course, but you will probably have a better experience at the Rockefeller Centre on 50th St. also around 7th Avenue (near MOMA!).

Everything, by the way, is expensive. I find you just have to kind of ignore prices and do what you want to do– you came all this way and went though all the trouble of getting there, so why not?

The Museum of Natural History is pretty good– a bit like our ROM but bigger. It’s on the West side of Central Park (I assume you’ll have a touristy map). Oh– there is a “Titanic” display on 44th Street, near Times Square. I thought it would be kind of cheesy, but it is actually very interesting. It features a lot of exhibits of items retrieved from the wreck, beautifully presented, with lots of basic information. There is even a recreation of a couple of state rooms and the grand stairway. Expensive again ($25) but we thought it was worthwhile. Took about two hours to go through.

We weren’t high on Ellis Island– they haven’t done very much with the building– just placards, text, and pictures, really, though it was interesting to see the island. You won’t get into the Statue of Liberty– it’s all reservations now, and they are convinced that Al Qaeda is determined to attack it (!) so you’ll have to wait in line so they can scan your lunch bag. You do wonder if they shouldn’t be investing the huge cost of it into protecting something that really matters. It would probably be cheaper to buy a spare Statue of Liberty and keep it in a warehouse in Brooklyn in case it’s needed.


To use the toll roads on the way to New York City, you take a slip of paper from a man in a booth and then, when you exit the toll road, hand it to another man in a booth who calculates your fee and collects the money.

This is pretty whacky, especially if you have used the 407 in Canada, which has an automated system. You don’t even pay when you exit– you get a bill in the mail.

But then, we paid 5 or 6 dollars for each stretch of the toll road in the U.S. Ontario’s 407 seems to charge a lot more. Your bill is not going to be less than $15 for even a short stretch, from the middle of Toronto to Brampton.

Audio Books: We listened to the entire audio recording of “Angela’s Ashes” by Frank McCourt on the way down and back– about 14 hours, altogether, with time out to hear “Hair”, which we saw in New York at the John Hirschbeck Theatre.

“Angela’s Ashes” is a remarkable memoir, of Frank McCourt’s upbringing in dire poverty in Limerick, Ireland, in the 1930’s and 40’s.

The saddest song I’ve ever heard is “Kilkelly Ireland” by Peter Jones, based on letters found in his grandparent’s attic. It might well be the perfect soundtrack for “Angela’s Ashes”. “Kilkelly Ireland” is simply a series of letters, one to a verse, each verse a decade, to a son who has moved away to America, updating him on family events, expressing how wonderful it would be to see him again.

The Real Sally Bowles

Someone named Hilary Baily– I’ve never heard of her– has written a novel about a search for the “real” Sally Bowles. It sounds like a rather thin premise for a book.

cabaret078.jpg (24688 bytes)

During the production, Scott Roose and I wandered around the backstage area with a video camera interviewing various participants. Mike Broad, I believe, also shot some of this video. I have edited some of the interviews together with clips from the production and posted it to Youtube. [added November 26, 2008]

posted it to Youtube.  [added November 26, 2008]

I had heard once– I can’t remember where– that the “real” Sally Bowles died in a concentration camp. Very poignant. I remember being puzzled by that at first– she wasn’t Jewish– but, in the account I read somewhere, she got into trouble for speaking out against the Nazis.

cabaret108.jpg (38360 bytes)

The truth is that “Sally Bowles” subsequently left Germany and moved back to England where she died in 1973, of natural causes. Her real name was Jean Ross. And she really was a lousy singer and actress. Apparently Ross was not very pleased with the transformation into Sally Bowles. And why would she be? It’s not a flattering portrait. At the same time, a certain constituency seems to regard her as a passionate, mischievous, spirited lass, whose only fault was that she loved too well, and often. By most accounts, Jean Ross’ life after Berlin was not very eventful.


cabaret094.jpg (25554 bytes)


I’ve always been an admirer of Earnest Hemingway’s prose style: lean and clear, elegant, and yet compelling. Hemingway eschewed flowery description and florid imagery for the real thing, the actions, the words that defined character. The more pitiable that he saw something grand and noble in bullfighting. Why oh why oh why?

I’ll begin with a caveat: I would find bullfighting more appealing if a few more people died doing it. I know that sounds bizarre, since I object to bullfighting on the grounds of it’s barbarism, but to me it’s like those endlessly recycled American and British tv shows that titillate by constantly suggesting something sexual might be afoot without ever giving anyone the gratification of actually seeing anything remotely sexual. This is the fig leaf of respectable bourgeois morality: I didn’t actually see a nipple so I am still a morally upright person. No you’re not, because you enjoyed the titillation. You might as well have seen the real thing so we could all be honest about ourselves here. You are actually worse than a man who goes to a strip club because the man in the strip club, at least, doesn’t deceive himself about what he is doing there.

For the same general reasons, I believe executions should be public. Let’s get it out in the open: our society kills people in cold blood. We have him locked up. He’s going no where. He has no chance. Find the idea revolting? Yes, it is revolting. Yes, capital punishment is revolting, no less so because he we hide it away in shame.

So when the brave, brave matador and the picadors enter the ring and the bull unexpectedly gives one of them a toss and then pummels and stomps him into the ground, let’s quietly acknowledge that without the occasional death, there is no genuine risk, and without genuine risk, the matadors and picadors are really no more brave or graceful than any other two-bit punk car racer or skate-boarder or gang member. They are cruel thugs absurdly in love with trivial barbarisms. They should stay in their trailers and open a six-pack and watch American football instead.


Oh Neil Simon! Oh Mary Tyler Moore!

Neil Simon is not exactly Chekov. In fact, he’s not even Neil Simon anymore, having long ago sold-out on his quirky if tired stereotypes and embraced “playwriting for people who think that writers think about things that matter while they don’t.”

In other words, his characters have dilemmas that you think you might have if you were in a play by a rich and pretentious play-write. You won’t be surprised by this dilemma. You won’t be disturbed by it. You will leave the theatre, amused at being amused.

So I find it ironic that he was upset when he discovered that Mary Tyler Moore, who was starring in his most recent play, had not memorized her lines. She was wearing an earpiece at rehearsals, so she could receive prompts. The article about this in the New York Times was not clear as to whether or not the play was actually into production at this time, but it is clear that Neil Simon believed that Mary Tyler Moore was going to wear the ear-piece during performances. He sent her a note saying, get rid of the ear piece or get out of my play.

Mary Tyler Moore got out of the play.

Well, isn’t that a sad story? Mary Tyler Moore is, like, about 80. Well, 60 or something anyway. It must be hard to memorize lines at that age. It must be hard for her to have a famous play-write tell her she wasn’t good enough for his play. Neil Simon is pretty old himself. He hasn’t had a hit in years. He has a feel for dialogue and character-based humour and a person’s idiosyncrasies, but he hasn’t written anything really important, ever. But he is good enough to fire Ms. Moore.

Neil Simon, bless his naïve little heart, admitted that he didn’t know that many other actors were now using ear-pieces during actual performances. Simon said that if he had only known that, he wouldn’t have been so harsh on Mary Tyler Moore.

It sounds a lot like Mr. Simon is reacting to the blowback of him rudely firing an esteemed elderly actress.  Mary Tyler Moore, after all, is a celebrity.  People want you to think they have a relationship with her and really care about her, when what they really care about is being perceived to not be heartless.

My sympathy for Ms. Moore is limited by the fact that she was in the play in the first place because her celebrity status would attract ticket-buyers despite the fact that many better actresses could have played that role more convincingly.  Doing live theatre confers status on celebrity actors who are primarily known for television roles.  She shouldn’t have “auditioned” for the play if she couldn’t memorize lines.

I doubt that Mr. Simon did not mean it: get out of my play.

[As I write this, I think: you see why I’m not popular?]

So next time you pay $65 for a seat at a theatre somewhere, don’t think for one moment that it is mightily impressive that the actors learned their parts.

They might have.

They might not have.

Barry Bonds might have hit all those home runs without the assistance of chemicals. He might not. Madonna might be singing— it might just be dubbed. Those might be Demi Moore’s natural breasts, or they might not be. (Check out a movie called “About Last Night” if you’re seriously wondering).  Beyonce might have great pitch: it is very likely her vocals are autotuned (in fact, judging from radio play, the vast majority of vocalists today are autotuned.)

I know some people think that being concerned about honesty and authenticity nowadays is really rather quaint and precious. Aren’t we all little frauds in our own way? Do any of us admit to our friends and family that we’re really not as smart or good or wise as they think we are?

Sure we are.

But we don’t charge people $65 a seat to come and listen to us.

Cabaret (Pantages Theatre Toronto, 2001; Theatre Kent 1992)

Pantages Theatre, Toronto, April 23, 2001

“Cabaret”, after all, is still a musical.

You know– those dippy concoctions in which impossibly handsome lumberjacks sing schmaltzy love songs to dainty girls with kerchiefs in their hair while throwing them over hay stacks and pitch-forking in unison. Absurdities, in other words. Something which, in the right context, could be mistaken for a parody of something that is stupid it couldn’t possible exist in an original form.

cabaret129.jpg (31150 bytes)

The author with two members of the “Cabaret” cast, Theatre Kent, Chatham, Ontario (1992).
(Photos from 1992 Theatre Kent production of Cabaret, Chatham, On.)

Yes, you heard it here first: the musical is no more of an “art form” than ceramics or collectible dolls or the can-can.

So Cabaret is still a musical, and so, at some point, Sally Bowles sings a dippy love song about this man (Cliff) just maybe being the one who will turn out to be “different” from all the other one-night stands, and might be that one special person with whom she can build an enduring relationship and it’s obviously a showpiece number, and the audience is expected to applaud at the end of the song even though it occurs in the middle of what is supposed to be a play, a story, a narrative, and even though the guy is gay.

By the way– I have to rant about this for a moment– the theatrical tradition of applauding at the end of a musical number within a theatrical performance is absolutely disgusting, contemptible, idiotic, annoying, and stupid. I hate it. If the drama is worth watching, the last thing in the world you want is for the audience to suddenly break out into applause. The drama is supposed to flow from scene to scene. Contrasts and ironies are developed and intensified. Emotions are pitched. Characters are illuminated. But, suddenly: hey, great singing there Alphonso! Bravo! What a show-stopper! Now, what was the girl doing with the rope around her neck?

Most musicals– however– deserve the interruptions.  They are mostly pabulum, bland confections of trite melodic ditties.

“Cabaret” is not trite.  It’s a very acute, perceptive dissection of the critical period in German history.

But the audience was trained:  they applauded after every song.

Now, in all fairness, most of the singing in Cabaret takes place in the Kit-Kat club, so the applause is not as disruptive as it is for, say, “The Sound of Music”, wherein we all applaud the children going to their bedrooms, or a nun dancing on what is supposed to be a hillside.

As I said, for most musicals– a phony art form if ever there was one– the applause at the end of each song is not really a problem because I never hear it because I rarely go to musicals. Do I really want to see “Oklahoma”? No. Do I think “The Sound of Music” really illuminates the nature of the Nazi terror? Not a chance. Does “Oliver” move me to some kind of state of contemplative bliss? Oh, please…

For the record, I have seen some musicals, live, on-stage, as well as a few on film. Here’s a list that I can remember off-hand:

  • Oklahoma (so very weird)
  • The Producers (delicious and funny, because it mocks the musical)
  • The Sound of Music (compared to “Cabaret”)
  • Fiddler on the Roof (least bad of this lot)
  • Cabaret (a twisted work of dark genius)
  • Hair (a musical with pseudo-rock songs in it.  The Milos Forman movie version is interesting.)
  • Oliver (can’t remember)
  • Showboat (boring, sorry.)
  • Camelot (awful)
  • West Side Story (Natalie Wood’s vocals were recorded by Marni Nixon– need I say anything more about phoniness?)
  • South Pacific (dumb, dumb, dumb)
  • My Fair Lady (who cares)

I have also seen and enjoyed “Jesus Christ Superstar” live and on film, and “Evita” on film, but neither of these are really musicals. They are operas. The word “opera” is death at the box office, so they are advertised as “musicals”. Get it straight: “Jesus Christ Superstar” is an opera, in form and style and design. It has arias and recitatives and the entire narrative is contained in the songs. It is an OPERA. And so is “Evita”.


Anyway, back to “Cabaret”. “Cabaret” is loosely based on a book by Christopher Isherwood that is a fictionalization of his life in Berlin during the rise of the Nazis. It’s really not a very good book. It’s interesting, and it’s not awful, but it’s not great literature. But he did create some memorable characters and we don’t really have very much good English writing on Berlin in the 1920’s or 30’s so it stands out. In 1951, a guy named John Van Druten thought so too and wrote a drama (not a musical) based on the stories and it was produced on Broadway with Julie Harris and it was deemed a success. In the 1960’s, Hal Prince decided to develop it into a musical and recruited a couple of guys named John Kander and Fred Ebb to create the songs. Joel Grey created an absolutely unforgettable “Emcee”, and in 1966 the Broadway production won 8 Tony awards including “Best Musical”. In 1972, Bob Fosse made it into an exceptionally good film– except for the awful casting of Peter York as “Cliff” and Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles– which won numerous Oscars including “Best Director”. Joel Grey indispensably reprised his role as the Emcee.

The production I saw live at the Pantages was “directed” by Sam Mendes, who directed the film “American Beauty”. Did Sam Mendes actually direct this version? I doubt it. More likely, this staging of Cabaret was based on his original staging, but directed by Rob Marshall.

Now, odd things happen to brilliant talents in our culture. We live in a democratic, free society. The powers that be do not censor our literature or movies or theatre. That means, in theory, that you can say anything you want in a play or movie or book, and no one will arrest you and prevent people from seeing or reading what you have to say.

No. But we go one better: when someone presents a disagreeable message to us, a message that might imply that there are faults or sins or crimes in the way we– the collective “we”, the audience– act, we simply appropriate the message, repackage it, and make it into a cultural artifact.

Consider, if you will, the title song of “Cabaret”.

What good is sitting alone in your room?
Come hear the music play,
Life is a cabaret, old chum,
Come to the cabaret

A line from this song– “What good is sitting alone in your room”– has been appropriated by SFX productions for the advertising of the touring version of “Cabaret”. Obviously it means, in this context, don’t stay home watching television or playing cards or staring discontentedly at your spouse! Get up off your fat duff, whip out your credit card, and fork over $80 for a crummy seat at a large theatre and watch our packaged presentation of a musical that collected amazing critical reviews and therefore must be artistic and telling your friends you saw it will confirm your good taste. Get out! Have a great time! Make it dinner and a show, and stay overnight at the Ramada with the pool and sauna and calypso bar! Enjoy yourself! Live!

The trouble is, that’s not what the song means at all. In the context of the play, Sally is announcing her refusal to accept reality, or any kind of responsibility for the monumental evil that is closing in around her. When Cliff announces his disgust with the Nazis, Sally says, “but what has politics to do with us?” Cliff tells her that she is blind. And the play tells us that this diseased society– Berlin of the 1930’s– has opened itself to the infusion of Nazi ideals. And Sally blithely sings on, “life is a cabaret, old chum…” Is this the sentiment the audience wishes to identify with?

I grant you– the advertising itself might be playing with irony. But I doubt it.

In the original production by Hal Prince, another line did cause consternation. The Emcee does a little dance with a gorilla, while singing to the audience that, if they could only see her through his eyes, they would realize how beautiful and desirable she was. At the end of the song, he sings,

if you could see her through my eyes/
she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.

It’s a terrific line. It’s a fabulous line. It’s the entire heart and soul of the play’s anti-nazi sentiment. And it was rejected by the original producers and deleted from the production! Why? Because they thought it would imply that the play’s producers thought that Jews resembled gorillas? Yes. They thought Jewish Theatre-goers would be offended by it!

I am sometimes filled with wonder at this crazy world of ours.

Cabaret is a “concept musical”. That is, instead of lumberjacks singing to virginal maidens while dancing through the fields, the trees themselves sing. Just kidding. I mean that there is never any pretense that the music pops out of real-life situations into a tiny set-piece before the drama resumes. In “Cabaret”, the music is organically and symbolically linked to the drama, and becomes a metaphorical part of the narrative. The Emcee, for example, often intrudes on the action, singing a line, or, through facial expression, passing ironic judgment on the characters.

Ah… but in this new production, the Emcee has also changed.

In the original, Joel Grey was a magnetic, ambiguous personality. He invites you in to the Kit-Kat Klub, to leave your troubles outside and live for the moment. He urges you to enjoy life to it’s fullest without inhibition or hesitation. The ambiguity in this part is critical: he is simultaneously attractive and repulsive. He glowers and caresses, cajoles and demands. He is sexually ambiguous too– androgynous, asexual, an object of fantasy or domination. One minute he is rhapsodizing about the pleasures of a ménage a trois, the next he is a menacing storm trooper, winking to the audience– this is a game we all can play. The swastikas, the leather, the boots mean nothing. It is just another fetish. Grey’s performance is the richest, most entrancing element of the movie version, precisely because he doesn’t offer the viewer any shortcuts or simplified perspectives. While the owners of the club are beaten to a pulp by Nazi thugs, the camera cuts back to Grey, leering, laughing, chasing the cabaret girls in their lacey underwear. We’re all part of it…

In the current touring stage version of Cabaret, the Emcee looks more like Edward Scissorshands. He is pale, intoxicated, and diminished. He is, in the words of Joe Masteroff (author of the book of the original version), a “figure of doom”. During the first performance of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”, the sinister anthem to the rising power of the disciplined Nazis, the Emcee bares his ass: it has a swastika painted on it.

The audience can relax: evil has been conspicuously labeled and we are inoculated against the seductiveness of it all.

Which brings to me a certain ambiguity at the heart of “Cabaret”. You have a number of likeable characters at the center of the story who indulge in various degrees of licentious behavior and then you have the big bad Nazis trampling through the scenery hauling everyone off, presumably, to concentration camps. I’m not sure we want to draw a moral from the story, but if we did, what would it be? Isherwood was gay, so surely he wouldn’t want to have suggested that sexual immorality– defined in the broad strokes of the KitKat Klub– leads, as a consequence, to repressive, authoritarian governments? Cliff (or Brian, in the movie) leaves Berlin because he sees the Nazis as a genuine threat while Sally is blind to them. So he has “come to his senses”. So he goes back to America where he could be arrested for having sex with another man, and where plays like “Cabaret” have to conceal the homosexuality of one of it’s lead characters in order to find an audience on Broadway.

It’s a neat ambiguity. But then, Isherwood always insisted that his perspective was that of a camera– recording, but not judging.

Conversely, the orchestra is now comprised of beautiful women. In the original, the orchestra consisted of lumpy middle-aged men garishly dressed as women. Why the change? I don’t know. The first view of the orchestra in the film version is quite shocking, disturbing. How far will people go in this place? What is this Emcee leading us into? Is there any sanity in this place?

The Toronto production is smooth and efficient and even somewhat elegant. The orchestra is extremely tight and well-mannered, though the New York Times reported that the original revival production tried to sound more “authentic” and raw, as a real orchestra in the real original clubs would have sounded.

Christopher Isherwood lived in Berlin between 1930 and 1933. He wrote, of course, but paid the bills with English lessons. It was here that he met Jean Ross and the other persons who inspired the character sketches of “I am a Camera”. Isherwood later moved to the United States and taught English and wrote screenplays in California. “I am a Camera” was not a great success until the dramatization by John Van Druten made it’s mark in the 1950’s. In this version, as in the later movie, Cliff Bradshaw’s homosexuality was downplayed.

A book inscribed to “Jean Ross”, from Christopher Isherwood himself, was recently offered for auction at $12,500 by James S. Jaffe Rare Books.

Hal Prince on the movie version of Evita:

I must say I think that’s where the movie failed for me. They didn’t take that into account. They didn’t bother to figure out what was behind its underpinnings in the first place – and JUST told the story.

Did you like “The Money Song”? I did too. One of the highlights of the show. But it wasn’t written for the original “Cabaret”. It was created for the film version. But wait– you saw it in a live production?! Dang right. The movies rule! After the success of the Bob Fosse film, the stage version incorporated “The Money Song” too. Cross fertilization? Or homogenization?

Movies rule? Bill, check yourself. According to Hal Prince, the returns on “Phantom” are far greater than the total returns on the movie “Titanic”. Why? Because “Phantom” has played to sold-out houses for 11 years at, like, $45 a pop, whereas “Titanic” played to sold-out houses for three months at about $8 a pop. Hal Prince reports meeting people who have seen “Phantom” 75 times. He thinks that’s great. I’m not sure I don’t think it’s sick. What kind of person, do you think, sees “Phantom” 75 times? Think about it.

In it’s first incarnation, the German officers in “The Sound of Music” did not wear swastikas.

We now believe, in fact, that it is one of the great terrible illusions that we create an automatic redemption in such events as the Nazi era. Dr. James Young, Professor of English and Judaic Studies, University of Mass.