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.
Deb Filler is a comedian who performs 36 characters in her one-woman show, Punch Me in the Stomach. In Filler Up! she bakes a loaf of challah bread on stage. One of the greatest influences in her life was Leonard Bernstein, whom she not only praised for his warmth and generosity, but also co-wrote a short film about him. Deb was born in New Zealand but has performed all over the world, including in New York and in Alexandria, Virginia. She talks with Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti about growing up in New Zealand, her relationship with her father, and how she finds comedy even in the midst of tragedy.
New York City Opera has risen like a phoenix from threats to its demise. Lavish staging of Candide by the estimable Harold Prince is, but for a few casting glitches, glorious. (The director previously helmed productions both with this company and elsewhere.) It’s been a great many years since many of us attended a performance of Candide, yet the overture sounds like an old friend, filling one with happy anticipation. Sound Design (Abe Jacob) and orchestration are superb.
The story of star-crossed lovers Candide (Jay Armstrong Johnson) and Cunegonde (Meghan Picerno) is narrated by the play’s author Dr. Voltaire (Gregg Edelman). Cunegonde’s parents, the Baron (Brooks Ashmanskas) and Baroness (Sishel Claverie), and her brother, Maximilian (Keith Phares), disdain Candide as a bastard, forbidding marriage.
Jay Armstrong Johnson, Jessica Tyler Wright, Gregg Edelman, Keith Phares, Meghan Picerno
With the addition of flirty, sexually accommodating maid, Paquette (Jessica Tyler Wright), the three young people are home schooled by “wisest of all philosophers and scholars” Dr. Pangloss (Gregg Edelman) who teaches “Everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” Contentedness might be scooped with a spoon, but doesn’t last.
Candide is exiled and conscripted (in a potato sack) by two Bulgarian soldiers warring with Westphalia. Cunegonde’s family is slaughtered. She herself is kidnapped and raped. Before he can climb out of his sack and she can raise herself from a state of exhausted discard, not 20 feet from where he’s been abandoned, immediate experience forgotten, they’re singing a duet. Get used to it.
Chip Zien, Gregg Edelman, Brooks Ashmanskas and the company
Both characters, eventually joined by nine-lived Maximilian, Paquette and “the old lady” have a series of preposterous adventures separating and reuniting them as they’re borne by circumstance from Lisbon to Spain to The New World, Turkey and back. Used and abused (especially our ingénue) they’re nonetheless resourceful, steadfast, forgiving, and optimistic. Despite Cunegonde’s early aspirations to live the high life, the group ends up fulfilling Candide’s ambitions to have a little farm. Voltaire was, after all French and one must consider The Age of Enlightenment as having some way to go.
Meghan Picerno, Linda Lavin, Jay Armstrong Johnson
It’s good to see Harold Prince back in harness. The veteran director never once loses awareness of aesthetics on another large, somewhat complicated set. Whether the company is placed as chorus, playing a street scene (during which every participant has action and attitude), or united in movement, the stage looks swell. At one perfectly appropriate point, Candide works his way across an audience row; the Sage appears on a balcony, dropping parchment homilies like leaves. (This parentheses is the one point that drags.) Excepting those of Edleman and Lavin, Prince handles flamboyant character turns with eyebrow raised finesse.
Meghan Picerno, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Linda Lavin, Gregg Edelman
Jay Armstrong Johnson (Candide) has a simply beautiful tenor and displays fine acting. As Cunegonde, Meghan Picerno offers remarkable range and control, but she’s often a tad strident and less obtusely innocent than one imagines the character. The narcissistic Maximilian is well served by Keith Phares’s droll manifestation and excellent vocals. Wry warhorses Brooks Ashmanskas and Chip Zien have a winking comic touch in multiple roles.
To my mind, there are two major casting mistakes. Gregg Edelman (Dr. Voltaire, Dr. Pangloss, the Sage and others) can sing, but is neither a character actor, nor ever funny. His endless turn as the Sage is palpably painful. Linda Lavin (Old Lady), otherwise funny in her signature Upper West Side, deadpan, New York persona, is out of her realm both vocally and theatrically. Occasional Yiddish accent of a word makes one wince.
A marvelous, illustrated Set by Clarke Dunham provides just the right context for this zany tale of excessive pastiche. Were this a children’s book, he’d be awarded the Caldecott Medal. Hidden among appealing artwork, stairwells and balconies give the show’s director ample territory on which to play. Dunham inventively utilizes cut-outs (deliciously on cart wheels) and banners giving the show a naïve (not unpolished) feel, the extravagant masquerade of a music hall. His ship (which rocks back and forth) is wonderful.
Judith Dolan’s Costumes collaborate with visual environment as effectively as they do story and character. Color is tapestry rich. Seemingly arbitrary layering is flattering, often silly, always decorative, and splendidly thought-out-especially headwear. The designer’s horse, sheep, and lion costumes are inspired.
Wig and Makeup Design by Georgiana Eberhard is also symbiotic. Nothing looks out of place despite eccentricity. Every role is given distinction. Faces emerge painted, but never vulgar.
New York City Opera hopes to take this production on tour. It would be a genuine pity not to make it available to further audiences.
The Opera’s 2016/2017 season includes seven new productions, three New York premiers, and one U.S. premiere. Next, in March, a new production of Respighi’s La campana sommersa and, in June, Peter Eotvos’ new production of Angels in America.
Photos by Sarah Shatz
Opening: Keith Phares, Jessica Tyler Wright, Linda Lavin, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Meghan Picerno
New York City Opera presents Candide
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Book by Hugh Wheeler, Stephen Sondheim
Lyrics by Richard Wilber, Stephen Sondheim, John LaTouche, Leonard Bernstein
Directed by Harold Prince
Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall
January 8, 2017
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
One person’s perfectionism is the other’s neurosis. So let’s stop quibbling over how to label it and figure out how to fix it.
It seems that naming something gives the namer some sort of power over it: think for example of the Bogey Man, much less scary when you call it that. We can start by looking at some of the attitudes and actions (or inactions) suggested by the polite term “perfectionism.” These can occur across a spectrum that ranges from hesitation to complete paralysis and includes: chronic indecision, procrastination, anxiety in the face of options and a wide variety of the sorts of behaviors the British call “dithering.”
Once you’ve diagnosed yourself as a ditherer (or worse) and before you begin budgeting for the psychotherapist, try tapping into some of the resources that are easily at hand, and free. Well, that is if lingering student loans don’t continue to keep a price tag on your course in Philosophy 101.
Take the times when I have still not written the thank you note, because I don’t have time to write the whole and memorable letter I want it to be. Or I’ve taken a pass on Weight Watchers because I know I must and can lose much more than two pounds per week without group intervention. I know it’s time to recall the advice of my brother who used wisely to nudge me on with the reminder, “Remember, honey, the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Uncommonly good common sense that applies to the situation.
And if that doesn’t work, I have learned that a fellow named Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz is also a very convincing counselor. Remember Leibniz from late night cramming for the History of Philosophy exam? The shorthand reminder about his theory that the principle of reality was something called a “Monad.” His tag line was, “This is the best of all possible worlds.”
Voltaire had a heyday with that phrase which he parodied in the story of the starry eyed optimist Candide. Leonard Bernstein kept the joke going into the 20th Century with his musical of the same name. But it turns out that their joke at the expense of Leibniz may have obscured the very practical insight at the heart of his philosophy. To understand how that happened just change the emphasis before repeating the phrase. Instead of saying “This is the best of all possible worlds,” say “This is the best of all possible worlds.” See the difference?
If at this point you find yourself recalling that the academic pigeonhole for Leibniz was “rationalist” and that his talk of the “best of all possible worlds” sounds like a classic rationalization of bad times, it may be wise to take a second look. His was not just the reflection of someone who took a look at his 17th century Europe and decided that it was a perfect paradise. I think it was the world view of one who very hardheadedly grasped that all the abstract, theoretical worlds of “might have beens” or “should have beens” or “could bes” were just so many distractions and that the real business of living lies in coming to terms with the gritty marvel of what really is.
Leibniz’s phrase appears in an essay that considers the goodness of God, the freedom of the human person and the origin of evil. In it he takes the position that the very roadblocks of life, the stones in the road en route to the great good things that live as theoretical possibilities actually make the world better and more tolerable by eliciting good human responses like courage. He had the unusual (and I think highly realistic) view that an entirely perfect world would be not only impossible but even intolerable.
For him the problem of evil is the problem of sorting out what is life-enhancing and what is life-diminishing. That sort of insight and attitude can be a very enabling tool to use in the work of making sense of the experience of limitation and of suffering. It is not simply the stoic, grit your teeth attitude expressed by those who say, “What doesn’t kill you can make you stronger.” It is more like the understanding of why it is that people who have weathered some of life’s storms are often more attractive human beings and more desirable friends than the “golden ones” who seem to sail through life without ever experiencing a setback.
It is far too easy to relegate the study of philosophy, and even more the philosophers themselves, to a mental museum. In that museum everything is bigger than life, like a hall of dinosaurs that it is hard to connect with any animal life we have actually experienced. In that context, the “problems” are the sorts that are much too big ever to get solved. The theories are much too abstract ever to intersect with life as most of us live it.
In a way, that’s not surprising. There is the distance of history and of linguistic style that separates us from many of the greatest philosophers. And then there is the simple matter of trying to put an insight into words, in any age or language. Think for a moment of the last time you tried to explain one of your own “lightbulb moments,” one of those insights when for a moment something that was impossibly complex appeared remarkably simple and sorted out. Chances are that trying to capture that moment in language may often obscure rather than reveal the meaning you saw for a moment.
That process reminds me of a wonderful definition of poetry that I remember as being Poetry is the opening and closing of a door, leaving those behind to reflect on what was seen in a moment. It may be that the great philosophers are best understood and appreciated when one of the catch phrases associated with them connects with and illuminates a very specific moment of living. In that moment, a path is opened, a connection is made and both the very particular experience and the insight that makes sense of it are joined by an association that provides the path that firmly connects them. In that moment, it becomes evident what it means to say “philosophy is a system of ideas for making sense of experience.”
In this process of partnering with philosophers in the enterprise of making sense of one’s experience, experience is both the stimulus and the common ground. It can become productive in both directions, viewing one’s own experience from the vantage point of the philosopher’s insight and vice versa. The philosopher’s view illuminates the experience and seeing the philosophy in relation to common human experience gives it a reality and a utility it may never have had as an academic course.
Basic human experience can make much more sense of the philosophy and vice versa. In the light of that every day experience it “makes sense” in a way no theory can. So my advice is to see the “perfect” for what it often is in daily life. And don’t let it distract you from understanding life as a journey to be savored today, more than an impossible goal to be achieved sometime in the dim, distant future. I think Uncle Leibniz would agree.
For its 90th revival, Musicals Tonight! chose 1953’s WonderfulTown, originally starring Edie Adams and Rosalind Russell. The Tony Award winning show was based on its librettists (Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov) 1940 play, My Sister Eileen, which, in turn, derived from Ruth McKenney’s New Yorker stories and book.
Savannah Frazier as Eileen
This lively production features the talents of Director Evan Pappas, whose keen eye for character turns and aesthetic arrangements even when his cast just poses, serve to entertain and enhance, and Choreographer Antoinette DiPietropolo, whose work is buoyant. It also features an unusual cavalcade of good actors having fun with smaller roles.
Pretty, innocent, man-magnet Eileen (Savannah Frazier) and her smart, cynical, older sister Ruth (Elizabeth Broadhurst) have come to New York City from small town Ohio in search of fame and fortune, or at least lives where everyone doesn’t know everyone else’s business. Eileen dreams of becoming an actress, Ruth of earning her way as writer.
Savannah Frazier as Eileen, Elizabeth Broadhurst as Ruth, Javid J. Weins as Wreck, Jillian Gottlieb as Helen
The girls make a beeline for Greenwich Village where everyone knows artists live cheaply. Exhausted, they’re ambushed by a landlord named Appopolous (Perry Lambert, with deft accent and comic timing) who knows rubes when he sees them. He talks them into a tiny basement apartment with a window on the street. Within minutes, an explosion rocks the room- subway construction is going on beneath, but only, they’re assured, from 6am to midnight. (Sound effects are terrific.) Why, oh why, oh why, oh –why did I ever leave Ohio?…they sing.
When a stranger strolls in assuming the apartment is still inhabited by a prostitute, their neighbor, “Wreck” aka Ed Loomis (David J. Wiens) comes to the rescue. An ex-college football hero, the young man is sweet and simple. His girl, Helen (Jillian Gottlieb) timidly hides their relationship from her judgmental mother, Mrs. Wade (Leslie Alexander), at one point going so far as to board Wreck in the girls’ kitchen overnight.
Wonderful casting pairs the substantial Weins and tiny Gottlieb to best advantage. Moving her aside by absently lifting and repositioning her is directorial candy. Weins handles “Pass the Football” with dumb, wistful skill. Gottlieb manifests a perfect mouse-voice and kind of apt, fluttery presence.
James Donegan as Bob; Paul Binotto as Speedy and Perry Lambert as Appopolous
While Eileen strikes out at multiple auditions, she attracts both wholesome Walgreen’s manager, Frank (Ian Lowe) who gives her free lunches and heat-seeking, sleazeball newspaper reporter Chick (Leland Burnett), who promises to tell his editor about Ruth. Both are inadvertently invited to dinner the same night. Lowe is credibly low key and likeable in a role that might otherwise disappear. Burnett is oily from dialogue to body language, adding interest to his character.
Meanwhile, Ruth is summarily rejected until she encounters Bob (James Donegan), an editor on The Mad Hatter magazine (aka The New Yorker) who, recognizing his younger self, reads her dreadful stories. (Enactment of these is alas, a weaker segment.) Bob comes looking for the discouraged Ruth and is also invited to potluck by Eileen. In the well paced “Conversation Piece,” table chat is stilted, ulterior motives clash.
James Donegan is not only an attractive actor with a warm, appealing voice, but sympathetic in a role which is sometimes a placeholder. His reading of Ruth’s stories aloud has just the right restrained, but incredulous tone. I’d be interested in seeing this thespian in a straight play.
James Donegan as Bob, Savannah Frazier as Eileen, Leland Burnett as Chick, Elizabeth Broadhurst as Ruth, Ian Lowe as Frank
Ruth inadvertently gets herself involved with a bunch of South American sailors who love the “Conga.” (Choreography is fun, though opportunity was missed in not snaking down the otherwise well employed theater aisle.) When Eileen tries to help, she gets arrested and ends up captivating the police department who serenade her with “My Darlin’ Eileen.” Joshua Downs portrays the station captain with genial charm, Irish lilt, and a pleasing vocal.
Eileen also lands on the front page of a newspaper which secures her employment as an entertainer by Club Vortex owner, Speedy Valente (Paul Binotto, an amusing, come-to-life cartoon.) “Ballet at The Village Vortex” offers infectious choreography. Needless to say, everyone is paired up and employed by the end.
Savannah Frazier as Eileen, Elizabeth Broadhurst as Ruth
It’s the journey that counts. Take it. The musical itself is a romp and there are so many unexpectedly nifty moments, I found myself smiling almost throughout the whole piece.
I imagine Eileen a bit more naïve than depicted, but Savannah Frazier has a simply lovely voice and settling in, enchants more than just the men on stage. Asking the police to fetch and carry for her, Frazier morphs into the girl who blithely takes this for granted.
Elizabeth Broadhurst (Ruth) does a yeoman-like job, but never quite gets Ruth’s caustic fatalism. Helpless moments with the sailors are effective as are earnest speeches about her writing and concern for her sister.
Also featuring: Brekken Baker, Abby Hart, Allyson Tolbert, Piera Calabro
Photos by Michael Portantiere
Opening: Eric Shorey (also an engaging tour guide at the show’s top), Neville Braithwaite, Ryan Rhue, Dallas Padoven, Elizabeth Broadhurst as Ruth, Isaac Matthews
Musicals Tonight! presents
Libretto- Joseph Fields/Jerome Chodorov
Lyrics- Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Directed by Evan Pappas
Choreographed by Antoinette DiPietropolo
Music Director/Vocal Arranger-James Stenborg
The Lion Theatre
410 West 42 Street
Through April 17, 2016 Come back in October for next season’s first production Funny Face by George and Ira Gershwin