Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
Continuing on with our series on experiencing the world’s best vacation spots vicariously through the use of books and movies, now let’s take a sojourn to Paris the City of Lights. With its fantastic food, its café culture, its world famous museums, historic architecture and so much more, it is arguably the Ultimate Destination City. Let us explore.
Five Great Movies to See That Were Filmed in Paris
An American in Paris (1951) Vincente Minelli directed this classic movie musical based on the composition of George Gershwin. Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) is a WWII vet struggling to make it as an artist while romantically involved with Lise (Leslie Caron). Oscar Levant, Georges Geutary, and Nina Foch also starred. It was a huge box office smash and was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won six. It is ranked #9 on the AFI’s list of Best Movie Musicals.
Belle de Jour(1967) Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel directed and co-wrote this film based on the Joseph Kessler novel of the same name. Severine (Catherine Denueve, in one of her most acclaimed roles) is a young and beautiful housewife married to physician Dr. Pierre Serizy. She loves her husband, but is sexually frustrated and finds release by working as a high class prostitute while he’s at work. Many of Denueve’s costumes were designed by Yves St. Laurent himself and the film won the Golden Lion and Passinetti Award for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival.
Amelie (2001) Audrey Tatou shines in the title role as a shy young waitress living in Montmarte who decides to devote herself to promoting the happiness of others. Along the way of course she finds love for herself as well. The movie was a global smash and the highest grossing French language film released in the U.S. to date. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, won two BAFTA awards, four Cesar Awards including Best Film and Best Director, and won Best Film at the European Film awards.
Ratatouille (2007) Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol) directed this animated Pixar offering. Remy the rat (Patton Oswalt) is an idealistic and creative soul who yearns to become a great chef but finds it hard to do because…well he’s a rat. Until that he is forms a partnership with bumbling garbage boy Linguini (Lou Romano). Janeane Garafolo, Ian Holm, Brian Dennehy, Brad Garrett, and Peter O’Toole lend their voices as well. To create the food animation Bird interned at The French Laundry restaurant and the production team consulted with numerous chefs. The end result was a visually spectacular and hilarious movie that rightly won the Academy Award for Best Animated Picture.
Midnight in Paris(2011) Woody Allen wrote and directed this comedic fantasy. Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is a screenwriter and would be novelist besotted by Paris while his fiancée Inez (Rachel MacAdams) is less enamored. One night Gil discovers a way to travel back in time to Paris in the 20’s allowing him to hobnob with figures like Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein. The movie is essentially a love letter to Paris and its charms and enchantments which helped win a Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Screenplay.
Five Great Books Set in Paris
Le Pere Goriot(1835) by Honore de Balzac. Set in Paris during the Bourbon Restoration, the novel follows how three characters lives intertwine: criminal in hiding Vautrin; idealistic young law student Eugene de Rastignac; and the titular Goriot, an elderly man who dotes on his spoiled and ungrateful daughters. While it received mixed reviews at the time it is now widely considered to be Balzac’s most important and influential novel that gave rise to the term ‘Rastignac’ to denote a social climber who’d do anything to advance their position.
A Moveable Feast (1964) By Ernest Hemingway. A memoir of Hemingway’s early years as a struggling expatriate journalist and author in the 20’s when he was married to his first wife, Hadley. It was published posthumously by his fourth wife and widow, Mary Hemingway, three years after his death based on his manuscript and notes. Hemingway provides specific details on many Parisian streets and cafes still in existence today as well as featuring such notable figures as Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Aleister Crowley, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, John Dos Passos, Gertrude Stein and many more. For anyone interested in Paris OR literary history it’s a must read.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog (2006) By Muriel Bayberry. Renee Michel is a brilliant and sensitive woman who hides her genius under a shade while working as a concierge at a ritzy apartment building. She is befriended by the precocious and unstable 12 year old Paloma Josse and one day the cultured Japanese businessman Kakuro Ozu begins to take an interest in Renee as well. An publishing phenomenon it became an international best-seller and won the 2007 French Booksellers Award, the Prix du Rotary International in France, and the Brive-la-Gaillarde Reader’s prize. A movie adaption starring Josiane Balasko as Renee was released in 2009.
Pure (2011) By Andrew Miller. The novel centers around the efforts of engineer Jean-Baptiste Barrette who is tasked with the removal of the Les Innocentes, cemetery and church from Les Halles, France in 1786. Barratte soon find he has both friends and enemies in this task and Miller draws a colorful cast of characters who wage against each other during a time of incredible political turmoil. It was nominated for the Walter Scott Prize and South Bank Award, and won the Costa Book Award for ‘Best Novel’ and ‘Book of the Year.’
Paris: The Novel (2013) By Edward Rutherford. This historical novel traces the history of Paris from 1261 to 1968 thru the sagas of six core families; the Revolutionary Le Sourds, the aristocratic de Cygnes, the bourgeois merchant Renards, Napolean supporting Blanchards, the Gascons of the slums, and the Jacobs an art dealing Jewish family. Based on real events following two different timelines and set in locales such as Montmarte, Notre Dame, and Boulevard Saint-Germain it weaves a fascinating tapestry.
“…Dear Ms. Fitzgerald…The first time I saw you was on tv…You were singing…clear and velvety smooth…like you were making a beautiful painting with your voice…” The daughter of two professional singers, Broadway denizen Andrea Frierson has felt an affinity with Ella Jane Fitzgerald (1917-1996) since childhood. Bookended by letters, this show parallels Frierson’s life (and that of her family) with Fitzgerald’s, not in terms of actual incidents, but rather professional experience and the icon’s influence. The author/performer wisely doesn’t try to imitate her heroine, she channels her.
Between vocals, Fitzgerald’s biography is peppered with four line poems written by Frierson: Hollywood came a-calling /I went!/Salary they paid me- three times my rent/Oh Chick…if only you could see/All the good you brung to me…This, as if by Fitzgerald, refers to Ella’s invitation to Hollywood because of popularity with Chick Webb’s band. A single reference to experienced prejudice elicits: A first-class ticket to a Jim Crow affair/The dress code is black and white/The misery’s private; inherited by birth/Enjoy your second-class flight…The novelty mostly works.
Signature numbers like “Honeysuckle Rose,” “A Tisket a Tasket,” “Goody, Goody,” “Lady Be Good,” “How High the Moon,” and “The Wee Small Hours of the Morning” arrive with confidence and style. Frierson is a fine singer. She has superb control, a classy swing, mellow scat, and a long note that never pushes. Ballads whisper and swell, be-bop feels effervescent. Phrasing is impeccable, gestures kept to a minimum.
Projected images of Fitzgerald and Frierson through the years are joined by photos of The Apollo Theater, streets of Harlem, album covers, and newspaper headlines adding atmosphere. Relevant sound effects are occasionally employed to create time and place.
The show is in development. At this point Frierson’s own story, especially in regard to that of her family, intrudes too often with tenuous analogy in order to include certain songs. A set of peripheral cousins, one boyfriend, and a Beatles number could be easily jettisoned. Though she sings George Gershwin’s “Porgy” beautifully, it doesn’t relate to Fitzgerald the way “Summertime”, a similar vocal opportunity, would. “Laura” is justified by a mention of Million Dollar Movie and “Get Out of Town” doesn’t work in response to bigotry experienced on American Airlines.
This is meant to be constructive criticism. Me & Ella is thoroughly entertaining. Fitzgerald’s story is well told. Much of Frierson’s history is charmingly related. The artist can clearly act and boy can she sing! Enthusiasm and affection are palpable.
Directors Murphy Cross & Paul Kreppel spotlight Frierson’s vocal appeal and storytelling.
Ron Abel’s excellent arrangements are engaging and evocative of Fitzgerald.
The band, featuring Abel on piano, Rex Benincasa- Percussion and Richie Goods-Bass, is first rate.
Photos by Ben Strothmann.
Photo of Ella Fitzgerald- Wikipedia
The York Theatre Company presents Me & Ella- Written and Performed by Andrea Frierson Music Direction & Arrangements by Ron Abel The Theater at St. Peter’s 618 Lexington Avenue Through July 23, 2017 NEXT: JERRY’S GIRLS August 8-15
Simon Green and David Shrubsole made their New York debut at 59E59 Theaters in 2008 with the Noel Coward show A Changing World. I attended-twice. Here, I thought, were performers who “got” Coward, both his tender sentimentality and acerbic wit. Green’s British accent, actor’s phrasing, perception, and intelligence buoyed an unforced theatrical tenor. Shrubsole’s role as creative Sancho Panza was a perfect fit.
Eight years later, with one appearance here between, the respectively accomplished duo come together again to give us a more personal glimpse of Sir Noel. Copious research is evident in selections of Coward’s letters (to and from), poems, diaries, and songs. The latter also mines material from Cole Porter, Ivor Novello, George Gershwin, and Irving Berlin which the program conjectures were inspired by Coward. Jeremy Nicholas’s “Place Settings” could actually be mistaken for Coward, influencing Porter and Novello is highly plausible. I wonder at the inclusion of Gershwin and Berlin on this list, however.
Additionally, with mixed results, the show includes Shrubsole’s setting of verse by Coward, Porter and Maya Angelou. A sophisticated The Little Old Bar at the Ritz (Porter’s verse) arrives smart and melodic, but Angelou’s Human Family seems to be in the wrong show, and Coward’s Honeymoon 1905 drones on almost monotone. Too many settings sound alike.
Readings and monologues are often quite wonderful. I Knew You Without Enchantment is a virtuoso turn. Green can toss off phrases like “My darlings” as if they were second nature. Correspondence between Podge and Stodge (Coward and his mother, Violet) rings wry and warmly true.
The show features eclectic songs such as : “Something Very Strange is Happening to Me,” “Don’t Turn Away From Love” (with an effective soupcon more emphasis on don’t) and “I Saw No Shadow” (Shrubsole paints melodic pictures) as well as the iconic “I Travel Alone”, “London Pride”, and “Sail Away.” These last three are melancholy, dignified, wistful, resigned, while a rendition of “I Went To a Marvelous Party” is unexpectedly rushed, chopped by interjected text, and unfunny. This is not the Green I remember.
At home both on a big stage and in an intimate cabaret environment, Green looks slowly around the room drawing us in. The artist, like Coward, is elegant. There are genuinely touching and lighthearted moments. Shrubsole’s accompaniment and background music (to spoken verse) is respectively sensitive and spot on. In this show, however, he’s is more successful with other composer’s melodies.
I admire these artists, but am disappointed with their latest effort.
Photos by Heidi Bohenkamp
Simon Green Life is for Living-Conversations with Noel Coward Musical Director/Pianist/composing contributor-David Shrubsole Research- Jason Morell 59E59 Theaters 59 East 59th Street Through January 1, 2016
I would call this an appreciation. I’ve listened to Stranger in a Dream several times now, hearing something new or drifting at different junctures each pass. The recording is, in fact, dreamy. Though ostensibly a celebration of Marian McPartland inspired by Stacey Sullivan’s appearance on Jon Weber’s radio show, Piano Jazz, the two musicians have made these songs their own.
This is music you want to hear wrapped in someone’s arms, sharing a romantic dinner or working your way through a bottle of good wine. Vocals are often diaphanous, phrasing deft, accompaniment sensitive.
Sullivan sighs into Stephen Sondheim’s “Loving You.” The ends of phrases leave afterglow. Its brief instrumental is meditative. An elegant rendition. “Stranger in a Dream” (Irving Caesar/ Marian McPartland) evokes shadows, curling smoke, collars up, alleyways. We’re beckoned by Steve Doyle’s haunting bass. Vocal is almost visibly sinuous. I imagine the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland, replete with hookah. “In the Days of Our Love” (Peggy Lee/Marian McPartland) is like sorting through packets of faded, ribbon-bound love letters and stained, curling photographs. Jon Weber’s piano caresses.
“Oh What a Beautiful Mornin” (Rodgers and Hammerstein) is borne by an uncommonly original arrangement. Distant clop, clop horse-hoof-vamp fades to the languid, waking singer, rubbing sleep from her eyes, stretching, putting on coffee, optimistic perhaps in the wake of a good dream. Sullivan makes this intimate rather than the vast cornfields to which we’re accustomed; ‘one woman’s experience.
“September in the Rain”and “Come Away With Me” (Al Dubin; Nora Jones/Harry Warren)-an inspired pairing, offer escape rather than brooding reflection. Bone-damp ghostliness is broken by light, stage left at the back. A second surprising combination arrives with “All the Things You Are” (Oscar Hammerstein/Jerome Kern) and Chopin’s Waltz in B Minor Opus 69 #2. ‘Just beautiful.
Even classic swing numbers, though up-tempo, are predominantly subdued. A cottony “Prelude to a Kiss” (Duke Ellington/Irving Gordon/Irving Mills) never gets dense or insistent;“It Don’t Mean a Thing (If You Ain’t Got That Swing)” and Ellington’s “Jump for Joy” eschew pounding boogie woogie – though footwork is fancy and the girl goes flying. During “Lullaby of Birdland” (George Shearing/George David Weiss), Sullivan elongates her lyric while Weber’s fast, precise piano jitterbugs on its own caffeinated recognizance and Doyle’s bass sounds like a syncopated hummingbird.
“Castles in the Sand” (Walter Marks/Marian McPartland), one of my particular favorites, begins a capella like a child’s rope skipping song. It’s young, buoyant and somehow delicate. Nick Russo’s strings tickle.
Musicianship is grand. Overall feelings: pleasure.
Opening: Left photo: Maryann Lopinto; CD photo-Bill Westmoreland
Internal Photo: Stephen Sorokoff
Stacy Sullivan-Stranger in a Dream
Jon Weber- MD/Piano, Steve Doyle-Bass, Nick Russo-Guitar & Mandolin Click to buy on Harbinger
Louis Rosen, composer/songwriter/librettist/musician/author/educator is a Jewish white man for whom black experience profoundly resonates. He’s also a musician with an affinity for serious poetry. My first impression of the artist reflected neither of these attributes. Comfortably ensconced on a stool at New York’s Birdland, he sang his own songs, playing acoustic guitar. They were, as I said in my review, literate, sincere, folksy… a graceful advocate of understatement. It felt like the 1970s.
The second part of the program consisted of selections from Dream Suite, music by Rosen, words by Langston Hughes. I wrote, Songs arrive full blooded and black, hybrid American opera-without libretto… roots lay in gospel, R & B, boogie woogie, blues… Like George Gershwin, here was an artist who effectively burrowed under the skin of black culture. Rosen, however, had no need for theatrical thru-line. Each lyric could be married to music specific unto its sentiments.
A little research unearthed the prolific composer’s Twelve Songs on poems by Maya Angelou, One Ounce of Truth-The Nikki Giovanni Songs (with Dream Suite, these comprise The Black Loom Trilogy) and The Ache of Possibility utilizing more Giovanni. What, I wondered was the source of such fellow feeling? What was his journey?
Rosen was raised on Chicago’s far South Side in a mile square enclave of middle class, Jewish white folks who built the community just after World War II. It was “A good place to buy a home, raise children, build a synagogue, and enjoy the fruits of family life.”
Starting when he was 10, and escalating to “white flight panic mode” after the Martin Luther King assassination, something uncomfortable happened to his secure, picturesque neighborhood. Despite avowed lack of prejudice, as black people traded up and moved in, Rosen’s white buddies and their families moved out. The Jewish Community Center and then the Temple shut down. “People succumbed to the fear their homes wouldn’t be worth anything after awhile.” There’s regret in his response and a tinge of former confusion. “It was happening all over the country.”
The boy and his contemporaries were in the eye of the storm. There had always been blacks and Latinos in school “you assumed the price for entering the Men’s Room (in high school) was a quarter,” but never like the incoming wave. Still Rosen was physically assaulted only once and then by two Chicago policeman because he had long hair. They threw him against the patrol car, “did a mildly rough search, no doubt looking for drugs, and found none. It wasn’t serious, but it taught me what it is to be targeted based on appearance.”
His family stayed another five years, then moved a few miles away. Mrs. Rosen, like many others, suffered the loss of her dream house and hopes of growing old within the community that had nurtured her marriage. It wasn’t until age 40, when he interviewed past residents in an effort to fully understand the phenomenon, the artist found empathy for what occurred.
Shakespeare to Sondheim
Though his family played an American Songbook version of “Name That Tune” around the dinner table, young Louie Rosen was into R & B. He joined a garage band performing – before closure – at The Jewish Community Center and bar mitzvahs. By 16, he’d dispensed with drums teaching himself piano and guitar. He also began to write, albeit without knowledge of notation. Singer/songwriters made him want to be a musician. When neighborhood street sounds changed, the teenager heard so much soul music, it annoyed, rather than intrigued him. “If I have any regret, it’s that I never went down to the blues clubs in Chicago.” I glance at the porkpie hat.
After an ambivalent Gap Year, Rosen buckled down to college and then The Chicago Conservatory. He might, he conjectures with implicit shrug, have been a basketball coach or history teacher were it not for this chapter. Extremely broad programs included jazz orchestration and a class on Stravinsky.
Rosen kind of fell into theater. The last year at school, he shared a house with his playwright brother; thespians converged. At 22 and wet behind the ears, he was hired to compose a score for Romeo and Juliet and six songs for an Aristophanes play. It was the first time he coupled music with verse. Supporting himself by teaching, he went on to score Macbeth and Winter’s Tale inadvertently becoming the city’s go-to Shakespeare guy.
“I had no experience with black culture; classical music doesn’t expose you to African American musicians.” A self proclaimed serious artist, the only theater composers he liked were Gershwin, Weil, Bernstein, and Sondheim. Exceptions might be made for those musicals attacking important subjects like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific.
In 1981, NYU inaugurated a pilot graduate program for theater writing. As a prologue, eight musicians were invited to spend three weeks in workshop with Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince. Rosen came to New York. “At this point, Sondheim had just written Sweeney Todd. The 1970s made us think you could do serious, experimental theater.” His voice takes on energy in recollection.
The group met in a loft on Crosby Street. Rosen describes it as looking like “a heroin den.” He loved that uptown guys would come down for this. “The first thing I had to do as a young man was get over the fact that I was in the room with Sondheim and he was treating me like I had a right to be there. Once I did that, I had to listen very closely. He was unpretentious, but terse, with laser like precision zeroing in on problems…” The student especially learned form, lyric writing for character, and the significance of musical gestures that make take one from dialogue into song. They still occasionally communicate.
“I really liked Hal too. He criticized one of my songs in a way that to this day is the best put down I’ve ever had: `I feel the music is gratuitous’ and he was right, it was generic.” Up go the eyebrows.
That December, Rosen returned to New York (and stayed) entering NYU’s MFA program. A two week intensive with Leonard Bernstein was held on 47th Street, upstairs, next to The Gaiety Deli in a space donated by The Shuberts. “He was a showman. When he walked in, he stopped in the doorway and looked around until all eyes turned.” The Maestro wore a cape.
The first session was scheduled for three hours. When time was up, a loquacious Bernstein suggested if someone would get him dinner, he’d stay until he had to be at the theater. “They bring this greasy chicken. He’s eating and speaking with tremendous insight about Mark Blitzstein. There are these movie posters up on the wall. In the middle of a sentence, he takes a drumstick bone and says, `Let me see if I can hit Lana Turner in the tits,’ throws it, and goes on without missing a beat.” Rosen grins.
When a couple of students brought in a song with what they thought was a Greek feel, Bernstein sat at the piano and offered 20 folk music motifs on which they might’ve built. “He said, steal from the real and make it your own, don’t give me faux Greek…He enjoyed astonishing us.”
Avoiding what he felt was the language of popular music, Rosen wrote instead for Brecht’s Galileo and Shakespeare’s The Tempest at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. “It’s like an actor getting a classical role. No one can do the definitive version.” He authored a successfully produced musical with Tom Bishop called Book of the Night and a song cycle entitled “A Child’s Garden of Verses” that blossomed into a second musical illuminating the life of Robert Louis Stephenson.
“I was really writing about my own childhood, the facts of his life in tandem with my emotional and musical crisis.” The piece is set on the last day of summer. An older Stephenson looks back working through a writer’s block. “It was interesting the degree to which I could communicate personally with someone else’s words.” The song cycle, what we called “concept albums” in the 1960s and 1970s, is an ideal form for Rosen. “Stories can be told, an emotional journey created, characters portrayed, but unlike musical theater, all the dots don’t need to be connected.”
The South Side
Rosen was now in therapy. It was time to face the past. Awarded the first NEA Grant given to an individual, he intended to create a musical theater piece based on growing up on the South Side. Six of the evocative songs he included with his grant application ended up on the CD South Side Stories. For perhaps the first time, an underbelly of jazz and blues, what he calls “the blue note” can be discerned in his music. “It metaphorically means the integration of everything I’d grown up with.”
…It was bungalows all in a row/Where a family dream could grow/And only Democrats knew where the bodies were buried/On the South Side…(“The South Side”)
I asked myself Why?/I asked myself, Who?/I answered some just don’t like barbecue on the/ South Side…Are we leavin’, are we stayin’?…Was the question, What to do?/Or was the question, What excuse do we use?… (“The South Side Blues”)
In the process, he realized not only that he didn’t understand what happened any better at 40 than he did at 13, but that his experience was not uncommon. “So I put aside music and started writing the book.” The South Side – The Racial Transformation of an American Neighborhood 1998
Tracking down and interviewing former black and white neighbors, Rosen created fifteen composite characters who “speak” rather like those in Our Town (Thornton Wilder) or Under Milkwood (Dylan Thomas). “I went in thinking racism was the only issue and came out understanding that fears were based on past history and the tribal nature of humankind.” A reference, in part, to the persecution of the Jewish people? Its author thinks of the edifying (nonfiction) volume as a spoken cantata. It was also something of an exorcism.
Miscommunication came up again and again:
“…knowing that blacks and Jews shared some similar experiences – you know, slavery, discrimination; we’d been partners in the civil rights struggle -I thought we had an awful lot in common. I was really surprised when certain things happened…that showed a gap between the two groups…” from a white woman
“So we felt. “Enough is enough. Fifty-fifty we don’t mind-living in an integrated community. But after that, forget it…It’s just like Tevye-you can’t look back.” …from a white man (Tevye is the protagonist in Fiddler on the Roof)
“I think I subconsciously felt we weren’t a wanted race, that it didn’t matter what you looked like, how you sounded, whether you were intelligent or educated – you just weren’t wanted, collectively….So when the Jewish people were leaving the neighborhood, I wasn’t surprised…” from a black woman
By the time Rosen started his next effort – Dream Suite, Songs in Jazz and Blues on poems by Langston Hughes – he’d read more books than he could count about the Antebellum South and a serious amount of African American poetry, from Harlem’s Renaissance to the 20th Century. “Hughes was the best… his work breaks through racial boundaries to touch the soul of humanity – racial, political, and personal….it says something worth saying.” Immersing himself in the author, Rosen devoured both autobiographies and a book of short stories. He identified with Hughes’ introspective nature.
“Most important for a composer, his poetry sings with natural ease and grace…the language is rich in imagery…yet always rooted in the American vernacular and soulfully direct in emotional expression…” The idea was to eschew art songs for settings within the broad reach of popular material.
“So called art songs by Schubert, Barber, Rorem live side by side with those of Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Antonio Carlos Jobim…It’s all one to me. If my musical voice is distinctive, its originality comes in the manner of synthesis…`Harlem Night Song’ (for example), starts with shades of Aaron Copeland and moves into shades of Jimmy Webb, though you don’t hear them explicitly.”
Rosen has been surprisingly successful with this approach. Much of what was written arrives so like songs it’s as if he collaborated with the lyricist. The CD of Dream Suite was inspired and recorded by Alton Fitzgerald White “we have a deep musical connection” who had been in the workshop of Book of Night and, upon recommendation, Capathia Jenkins, who became Rosen’s Muse, recording and performing with him ever since. “She and I come from completely different worlds, but the worlds become one with the work.”
“When Louie said I think I’d like to write for you, I didn’t take him seriously, but true to who he is, he called about a month after recording to tell me he started to sketch some of Maya Angelou’s poems. (one of her favorite poets)… It’s a tightrope to walk if you’re a white person trying to reflect the black experience. He gets it,” Jenkins says. Rosen’s settings are a challenge the vocalist relishes. If she doesn’t feel he’s written in her voice, that a song doesn’t speak to her, she tells him straight out. If the composer wants something “juiced” or “finessed” he speaks up. They describe Nikki Giovanni with the exact same phrases. It’s a symbiotic relationship, “an honor,” she adds.
Dream Suite was the first of the three song cycles that evolved into The Black Loom Trilogy. “If you take African American elements out of American music, you don’t have American music…That collision of cultures had a huge impact on my generation… it’s probably the most fundamental driving force in my life.”
Maya Angelou depicted the down and out with an edge Rosen found “sassy, political, and slightly angry.” He was attracted to the pride and dignity of her women. The composer also chose Angelou because the writing was a fit for Jenkins, “both her voice and being…these days I’m either writing for myself or Capathia.” Already familiar with Nikki Giovanni, he discovered over time her voice had mellowed becoming more positive. With gravity, there was new playfulness in the author’s poetry and prose. Giovanni has performed with Rosen and Jenkins. Jenkins calls her “salt of the earth.”
Louis Rosen and Nikki Giovanni
“At this point, the music was flowing at a pace that went beyond what I, as a lyricist, could keep up with. So every work for which I’d write music and lyrics would be matched by one or two where I set poetry to music… The journey of the three pieces is one towards light. I could personally express what I wanted to say through the content. It sang to me.” Rosen feels he’s currently finished with the black experience.
I ask how it is that religion hasn’t found its way into Rosen’s oeuvre. He’s addressed culture and history, but fixed on no Jewish writers for inspiration or raw material despite similarities in the black and Jewish experience and the environment in which he grew up. There’s a long silence. He responds by pointing to a song in South Side Stories about the relationship of a light skinned girl and dark skinned boy to which the girl’s parents object. “The original lyric was about a Jewish boy and a Gentile girl. I just wanted Capathia to sing the song, so I changed it slightly.” Except for a couple of isolated lines in two others, there are no additional references.
“I’ve struggled for years with the role of Judaism in my life. We went to synagogue, I had a bar mitzvah. By the time I was 15, Judaism had disappeared from the hood…I’ve never really felt a part of it. There are lots of things I’ve never felt a part of-like my generation…” Rosen thinks of himself as spiritual, not religious.
“My Third Act”
When James Lapine asked the composer (in 2014) to write music for his Lincoln Center production of Act One based on Moss Hart’s autobiography of the same title, Rosen hadn’t written for theater since the 2004 production of Moliere’s School for Husbands at the Westport Country Playhouse. Nor had he missed it. This is not to say Rosen hadn’t been busy. The artist almost always has several projects besides teaching Music Appreciation and Theory – everything from Bach to The Beatles – at 92Y School of Music over 30 years. He loves it. “It keeps me learning. When I learn something new I want to share it. The wow factor of discovery hasn’t gotten old for me.”
Lately, the multifaceted Rosen writes both music and lyrics in a chapter he calls more confessional than professional. “I think I was awakened to that distinction from an interview I read 30 years ago with Bob Dylan”; songs to get old by dealing with this moment in life. There are ballads, wry comments, and storysongs.
My son’s 529 Plan’s going M.I.A./My pulse rate is the opposite of A.O.K./I see rows and rows of red ink/Where there once was black/Stare into the abyss too long-/It’s gonna stare back… “The Middle Class (Used-To-Be) Blues”
“I still work a lot and I still want my work to be heard, but the desire now is driven less by large dreams than by the passion and joy of creating, then offering the work through performance and recording…The importance of being present with my wife and son, or spending a day wandering or reading in Prospect Park can’t be overstated. Social Security is visible on the horizon and as I said in `My Third Act’, eventually… I’ll be workin’ on my memoir while I’m workin’ on my tan.”
In December Rosen will perform his own music at The Duplex in collaboration with the formidable Karen Mason, whom he’s known since Chicago. A new CD, Dust to Dust Blues, will be released in 2017, the artist hopes to record both a 15 song cycle provisionally called “I Don’t Know Anything,” and, with Darius de Haas, A Child’s Garden Song Suite, inspired by the musical theater piece. Whew.
All Photos Courtesy of Louis Rosen Programs Courtesy of The Goodman Theatre Photos of Louis Rosen and Capathia Jenkins at Birdland by Kevin Alvey
Maestro begins with a lesson in music theory and construct (be patient, it will pass) and unexpectedly ends with a passionate outburst of self-recrimination. Between the two lies illumination of one of the iconic music figures of our era. Hershey Felder’s beautifully written piece channels musician/composer/conductor/author/teacher Leonard Bernstein from his influentially Jewish background (even demonstrating why he thinks of The Phrygian mode –the formation of a particular set of octaves or scales, as the Jewish mode) to immense professional success, frustration and personal crisis.
Though serious musicians are likely to garner somewhat more from the piece, it’s as entertaining as it is intermittently scholarly and most definitely a character portrait. Layman-accessible allusions such as: Wagner’s TristanundIsolde exhibits forward propulsion of harmonies and motifs in need of resolve, thus creating sexual tension – are an unexpected treat.
The Jewish tenant of “continuum to God” and his father’s “niggunim…Jewish tunes that he’d suddenly burst out singing in order to remind him how close he was to God…” seem to have translated into Bernstein’s hyper consciousness of a musical continuum. “Carried Away” from On the Town (written with Betty Comden and Adolph Green), has never sounded so schmaltzy and ethnically derived as in this production.“Papa, Yankel Gershovitz (George Gershwin) never eats with the help in the kitchen!” he protests when his father disparages musical pursuits.
Other performed music ranges from that of classical and contemporary composers (including Bernstein himself) to West Side Story which “changed musical theater forever” and whose songs here punctuate his emotional life. Among those we meet are: Dimitri Mitropoulos, who literally fed Bernstein his first oyster and with whom he felt “a new and powerful kind of connection”; Aaron Copeland who commented “You’ve recycled everyone, even me,” yet recognized the young man’s talent; Fritz Reiner who “looked like he had had sex once, didn’t like it, would never have it again…” (the piece is peppered with humor); and, Serge Koussevitsky whom he attributes with unquantifiable knowledge and falls “a little bit in love.”
At 25, the “skinny Jewish kid from Lawrence, Mass.” replaced ailing Bruno Walter as conductor of The New York Philharmonic, a full position he later acquired. At 33, he married his best friend, Chilean-born American actress Felicia Cohn Montealegre with whom he had a treasured family. Felder depicts their relationship as deeply loving (despite the quote “I had become completely behaviorized”) and his subject’s adulterous sex life with great delicacy. International reputation swelled as Bernstein conducted, composed, taught, and brought classical music to television.
The chronicle is detailed. It could successfully be 10-15 minutes shorter in music, but the libretto is terrific and the show holds. Bernstein’s own words and thoughts enrich. Ambition, ego and selfishness are addressed in tandem with talent, tenderness, a soupcon of politics, and regrets. Hershey Felder is appreciative and sympathetic but not, mercifully, starry-eyed; a fine pianist, a fair singer, a splendid writer and a fully invested performer.
Director Joel Zwick does a virtuoso job of guiding this one man show so that its subject is an unrushed Sherezhade, imitating pivotal conductors (albeit with extremely similar accents)and recalling his life in an arc from excited ambition, though joyful appreciation, to bitterness and remorse. Wry lines land on target. Ego is palpable. Passages concerning Bernstein’s wife, Felicia are moving. Pacing is adroit.
Set Design by Francois-Pierre Couture says a lot with a little, inclusively offering blank canvas on which Projection and Lighting Designer Christopher Ash exhibits his nuanced, illustrative skills. Images often bleed across the floor as well as backdrop, film at the center of a still becomes framed by mood, gradual morphing is well calculated. ‘Love the candle and stars.
Photos Courtesy of Hershey Felder Pesents
Hershey Felder as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro Book by Hershey Felder Directed by Joel Zwick 59E59 Theaters 59 East 59th Street Through October 16, 2016
Queens born Ethel Merman (1908-1984) sang publicly from the age of nine. Completing school, determined to forge a show business career, she performed nights after full time work as a stenographer. Merman was discovered in a club, offered a contract by Paramount, and made a series of short, cookie-cutter-plotted films.
Her breakout theatrical role in “Girl Crazy” put the incipient icon at the forefront of musical theater transition from operetta to jazz-based scores. The orchestra pit of George and Ira Gershwin’s show held Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Gene Krupa. One review said “She can hold a note longer than The Chase Manhattan Bank.” Merman starred in 14 Broadway successes.
We learn all this during Ted Sperling’s introduction to an evening of Merman numbers almost none of which represent the spirit of the artist. When the host informs us the company will not try to impersonate the celebrant, but rather share the joy of her singing, we assume that means not imitating her vocal style.
Instead, slowed and weighted musical arrangements with dissonant instrumental solos by otherwise good musicians and two a capella choral numbers that can’t be further from the singer’s essence, make the presentation seem longer than its almost 2 ½ hours. A sing-along with lyrics projected is assigned to a complex a song and quickly loses the audience. Direction dictates that naturally animated numbers are performed almost stock still. (Several artists’ tendencies to put their hands in pockets doesn’t help.) Hard working vocalists seem tethered.
Having said that, Sperling does deliver a sense of Merman’s trajectory, her becoming a sassy broad who could hold her own with the guys, professional idiosyncrasies, and personal challenges. We’re privy to a couple of priceless film clips, some nifty anecdotes, and there are entertaining musical exceptions.
Ted Sperling, Lindsay Mendez
Lindsay Mendez, perhaps the closest reflection of La Merman not only in lung power, but in energy, pluck, and unaffected presentation, offers such as “You’re a Builder-Upper” (Ira Gershwin/EY Yip Harburg/Harold Arlen from Life Begins at 8:40)- crisply articulated and sparkling with exemplary player-piano like accompaniment and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” (Stephen Sondheim/Jule Styne from Gypsy, a musical that was turned down by Irving Berlin) wherein some octave changes are very Merman-like, but performance is ultimately her own.
Natasha Yvette Williams gives us “Eadie Was a Lady” with spot-on instincts when to sing or speak a lyric, big eyes, rolling hips, and a bit of an appealing growl. (BG De Sylva/Nacio Herb Brown/Richard A Whiting from Take A Chance!) Cole Porter’s “Blow, Gabriel Blow” (from Anything Goes), on the other hand, is curiously bereft of exuberance until 2/3 of the way in. Undoubtedly not her fault. Williams preaches with zest and aptitude looking in audience faces.
Natasha Yvette Williams
Julia Murney’s rendition of Cole Porter’s “Down in The Depths On the Ninetieth Floor” is too big and depicts misplaced sexuality. (from Red, Hot, and Blue for which contested billing was decided by printing Merman and Jimmy Durante’s names graphically crossed.) Though the vocalist has a good instrument with fine control, she overacts. “Small World,” however, accompanied only by Kevin Kuhn’s guitar, is lilting and sincere. (Stephen Sondheim/Jule Styne from Gypsy)
The excellent Charke Thorell sings a jazz-age tinted “Anything Goes” (Cole Porter from the musical of the same name) with some easy scat and a breezy, cutely directed “You’re the Top” (Cole Porter from Anything Goes) with Emily Skinner. His interpretation of “Do I Love You?” following Sperling’s description of tragedies in Merman’s life, is handicapped by clear instruction to appear inconsolable. Vocal is pristine. (Cole Porter from DuBarry Was a Lady)
Clarke Thorell, Emily Skinner
Emily Skinner’s “Some People” is pithy and clarion without over-reaching. (Stephen Sondheim/ Jule Styne from Gypsy) Her version of “A Lady Needs a Change” (Dorothy Fields/Arthur Schwartz from Stars in Your Eyes) is aply wry. The rarely performed “World Take Me Back” has just the right tone. (Jerry Herman, written for Merman in Hello Dolly, cut from the original Carol Channing version when Merman at first turned the show down.) Skinner makes lyrics authentic.
Perhaps the highlight of the evening “You Say the Nicest Things” is jauntily performed by Williams and Thoreau AS Merman and Jimmy Durante for whom the song was written. Both vocal and movement are charming. Thorell excels. (Dick Manning/Carroll Carroll- special material)
An experiment in which two “double duets” – “You’re Just in Love” (Irving Berlin from Call Me Madam) and “An Old Fashioned Wedding” (Berlin from Annie Get Your Gun) are sung first, separately, and then simultaneously, surprisingly works as novel discovery. Both songs are sung in counterpoint, yet have such similar construction, lyrics sync. Skinner and Williams perform the first, Mendez and Thorell, the second-this delightfully expressive.
92Y Lyrics & Lyricists presents Everything’s Coming Up Ethel-The Ethel Merman Songbook Ted Sperling- Artistic Director/Stage Director/Writer/Host Jeffrey Klitz-Music Director/Piano Lainie Sakakura-Associate Director/Choreographer Theresa L. Kaufman Concert Hall 92 Y at 92nd and Lexington Avenue NEXT UP:I Have Confidence-Rodgers After Hammerstein– May 21-23