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.
Timing is everything, and Steven Spielberg’s The Post could not have come out at a more ideal time. While there are those who would attack the Washington Post and other news organizations with pejorative terms like “fake news,” the film dramatizes why our country needs a free and unfettered press. While the New York Times proclaims on its front page “All the news that’s fit to print,” the Washington Post doesn’t pull punches with its declaration that “Democracy dies in darkness.”
Risking everything to publish stories based on the purloined Pentagon Papers – the publisher, editors, and reporters could have been charged and jailed – the Washington Post claimed it’s rightful place as a national newspaper. Katharine Graham, who became publisher after her husband, Philip, committed suicide, allowed the paper to print, even though her board of directors warned that she could jeopardize the paper’s financial future. In making the decision to go ahead, Graham finally asserts her authority and makes the paper truly her own.
Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg, and Tom Hanks
Coming on the heels of The Vietnam War, Ken Burns’ exhaustive series for PBS, the film underscores that four presidents, from Truman through Johnson, continually misled the public about U.S. operations in Vietnam. In fact, while the government insisted that the war was being won, behind the scenes those in charge had declared the war unwinnable. President Nixon, who didn’t want to be humiliated losing a war, kept up the deception.
The film opens in 1969, in the jungles of Vietnam. The war is still raging, claiming both American and Vietnamese lives. Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a former Marine working as a military analyst at the Rand Corporation, is sent to Vietnam as an observer and sees firsthand that things are not going well. While flying back to Washington on a government plane, Ellsberg is asked for his opinion by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). If Ellsberg is surprised when McNamara agrees with his assessment, he’s even more surprised when McNamara faces the press after the flight and delivers an upbeat assessment that the war is being won.
Ellsburg, already disillusioned, makes the decision to photocopy 7,000 pages of confidential documents that reveal what the government has been hiding for more than four decades about the war. After failing to generate any interest from the members of Congress, Ellsberg, in 1971, contacts Neil Sheehan, who had been covering the war for the New York Times. Sheehan and his editors recognized the importance of the papers immediately. A team was put together, and for three months they holed up in a hotel, poring over the papers and deciding how best to tell the story.
Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee
The absence of Sheehan’s byline for several months does not go unnoticed by Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). Hanks plays Bradlee as the quintessential newspaper man and a fierce competitor. Even though the Times was recognized as the only truly national newspaper in the country, and one whose journalistic credentials far outweighed the Post’s, Bradlee is not about to play second fiddle. He gives an intern $40 with instructions to hop a train to New York and attempt to find out what Sheehan is working on. While the intern doesn’t learn the whole story, he does see a mock-up of the next day’s Times with practically the entire front page blocked out for Sheehan’s story. Bradlee knows the Times has something big and braces for the scoop.
Meanwhile, Katharine Graham is about to face a group of bankers, a first step in her quest to take the paper public to raise much needed cash. Meryl Streep does what she does best: transforming herself into the character, in this case a middle-aged woman plagued with self doubt who is about to take her place on the national stage. Although Graham has rehearsed with Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts), the Post’s chairman, she’s tongue-tied when before the bankers. Streep manages to capture Graham’s insecurities in subtle ways, with facial expressions and hand gestures. During the meeting, she actually seems to shrink in size. Despite her lackluster presentation, the offering succeeds and the company will have the cash it needs to go forward.
Tom Hanks (Ben Bradlee), David Cross (Howard Simons), John Rue (Gene Patterson), Bob Odenkirk (Ben Bagdikian), Jessie Mueller (Judith Martin), and Philip Casnoff (Chalmers Roberts)
On June 13, 1971, Bradlee’s fears are realized when the Times comes out with its first story about the Pentagon Papers, making the Post’s front page feature of Tricia Nixon’s wedding seem trivial. Three days later, however, the Nixon administration, citing national security, asks a federal court for an injunction preventing the Times from publishing any further stories. Although the injunction is granted, other newspapers jump in, trying to gain access to the documents.
One of the Post’s writers, Ben Bagdikian (a terrific Bob Odenkirk), has a hunch the papers came from Ellsberg, whom he once worked with at the Rand Corporation. Ellsberg, hiding out in a Boston motel, agrees to give the papers to Bagdikian. The reporter flies back to D.C., and the team gathers at Bradlee’s Georgetown home for some heavy reading.
The Times had more than three months to digest the papers. The Post’s team has far less time. The Herculean effort results in a story, but elation is short-lived when one of the newspaper’s attorneys says that the injunction could be a big problem if the Post’s source was also the Times’ source. If the paper defies the injunction and publishes, the risk would be great. Besides possible jail time for Graham, Bradlee, and others, board member Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford), warns that the newspaper’s recent public offering could be in danger. This is the turning point for Kay Graham, and Streep handles this scene beautifully, allowing us first to see her hesitation, but then her determination to do the right thing.
Howard Simons (David Cross), Frederick “Fritz” Beebe (Tracy Letts), Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford), Chalmers Roberts (Philip Casnoff), Paul Ignatius (Brent Langdon), Meg Greenfield (Carrie Coon, seated).
The Post’s first story runs on June 18. Unlike in the Times’ case, the Justice Department’s request for an injunction is turned down by a federal judge in D.C. Before the case reaches the U.S. Supreme Court, several other newspapers, including the Boston Globe and the Chicago Sun-Times, also publish stories. In a 6-3 decision on June 30, the court reverses the injunction. In the decision, Justice Hugo Black writes: “In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”
Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham
Graham is transformed by the experience. Not only has she firmly grasped the reins as the newspaper’s publisher, but she understands that she cannot allow her responsibility to be affected by the personal friendships she once enjoyed with those in power. (After reading the Pentagon Papers, she confronts McNamara about his deception regarding the war, reminding him that her son is still in Vietnam fighting.)
Graham and Bradlee are now a team. While Graham expresses the hope that the battle is now behind them, we know that an even greater challenge is ahead, one that will bring down a president.
Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
With the upcoming released biopic, The Post, starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep already garnering Oscar buzz, it seems like a good time to consider other times movies have brought the news industry into the spotlight. At a time when the future of newspapers and journalism seems so uncertain the following films are especially relevant.
All The President’s Men (1976) This classic political thriller tells the now legendary story of how Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) investigation and reporting of an a minor break-in at the Watergate led to a tangled web that brought down the Nixon presidency. (It also ensured that all future scandals would have the title ‘gate’ attached to their name.) Directed by Alan Pakula (Klute, The Parallax View) and with a screenplay by William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride) it was an instant commercial and critical success. It would garner eight Academy Award nominations and four awards including Best Screenplay for Goldman and Best Supporting Actor for Jason Robards. It currently holds a fresh rating of 93% on the Tomatometer.
Fletch (1985) Los Angeles Times reporter and master of disguise Irwin Fletcher (Chevy Chase in what he would call his favorite roll) is posing as a junkie while researching an expose on drug trafficking. A millionaire approaches him and claiming to be terminally ill hires Fletch to kill him. When further investigation reveals the millionaire to be in perfect health, Fletch realizes he’s on to a potentially much bigger story. To get at it, will take all his considerable wits. The movie was a critical and commercial hit spawning a sequel and has gone on to garner a cult following as well.
The Paper(1994) Ron Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind) directed this American comedy-drama taking place over 24 hectic hours in the life of Henry Hackett (Michael Keaton) Metro editor for the New York Sun, a fictional tabloid. The Sun is experiencing cash flow problems and is making drastic cuts. Meanwhile Henry’s wife, Martha (Marisa Tomei), is expecting their first child and aggravated with his workaholism. She wants him to take a job at the New York Sentinel (a thinly disguised version of the New York Times). Meanwhile a sensational double homicide of two white businessman and subsequent arrest of two African American teenagers has Harry’s news sense tingling. The all star cast also includes Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Randy Quaid, and Jason Robards (again!). It currently holds an 88% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes with critics praising the film for capturing the frenetic high energy environment of actual newsrooms.
State of Play (2009) This taut political thriller was an adaption of a six-part BBC series by the same name. Russell Crowe turns in a pitch perfect performance as investigative reporter Cal McAffrey who probes the suspicious death of Congressman Stephen Collins’ (Ben Affleck) mistress. Matters are further complicated by the fact that McAffrey and Collins were once old friends and that Cal had an affair with Stephen’s wife Anne (Robin Wright). Cal convinces his wary, long suffering editor Cameron (the always fabulous Helen Mirren) to let him dig deeper into the matter with the help of young reporter and blogger Della (Rachel McAdams at her most charming). Needless to say twists and turns abound in an intricate plot of layered conspiracy. State of Play garnered generally favorable reviews and Crowe won the Best Actor award from the Australia Film Institute.
Spotlight (2015) This searing biographical crime drama follows how The Boston Globe’s ‘Spotlight’ team uncovered a pattern of widespread systemic sexual abuse by priests in the Boston area, that kicked off an international scandal. Starring Michael Keaton (again!), Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams (again!), Stanley Tucci, and Liev Schreiber it’s an instant masterpiece demonstrating how a culture of complicity and silence enabled generations of abuse. It was nominated for six Academy Awards and won Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture. (Read our earlier review.)
Ah, Father’s Day when we celebrate dear old dad. This year instead of giving him an lousy tie, consider a family bonding experience like going out to the movies. Or staying in with one of the following movies about the paternal bond.
Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979) Robert Benton adapted and directed this tearjerker from the novel by Avery Corman. Workaholic ad-man Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) is shocked when his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) leaves him to raise their son Billy alone. It’s tough going for a while, but over time Ted and Billy develop a closer bond – at which point Joanna comes back wanting custody. It received five Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actress.
Father of the Bride (1991) A remake of the 1950 comedy of the same name. George Banks (Steve Martin) is a successful businessman, happily married to Nina (Diane Keaton) and with an extremely close relationship to his eldest child and only daughter Annie (Kimberly Williams in her film debut). When Annie announces her whirlwind romance and engagement to rich young Brian McKenzie (George Newbern) dad finds he’s not ready to give his little girl away. There’s an hysterical performance by Martin Short as the wedding planner the family hires. The film was both financially successfully earning back four times its budget and positively reviewed by critics as well.
In the Name of the Father (1993) Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In America) directed and co-wrote this courtroom drama based on the true story of the Guildford Four. Young hoodlum Gerry Conlon (the only and only Daniel Day-Lewis) is arrested on false suspicion of terrorism and tortured to confess along with three of his compatriots. When Gerry’s father Giusseppe (the late great Peter Postlethwaite) goes to England to help his son, he’s arrested as well as a co-conspirator. After a ridiculous sham trial everyone is sent to prison with Gerry and Guisseppe being assigned to the same facility and indeed being cellmates. The movie gets a lot of great drama from the courtroom antics with Emma Thompson playing Gerry’s lawyer, but the heart of the film is the bonding that takes place between father and son behind bars. The movie was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress for Thompson, Best Supporting Actor for Postlethwaite, and yet another Best Actor nomination for Day-Lewis.
He Got Game (1998) This sports drama was written and directed by Spike Lee starring Denzel Washington, in the third of the four movie collaborations the two have done together. Denzel plays Jake Shuttlesworth a convicted murderer whose son Jesus (real life NBA star Ray Allen) is the number one high school basketball player in the country with colleges fighting over him. Jake is given an one week furlough by the governor with the condition; if he gets Jesus to play for the governor’s alma mater, he’ll be released early from prison. Milla Jovovich , John Turturro, and Rosario Dawson round out the cast. It has an 80% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes and was nominated for three NAACP film awards.
Finding Nemo(2003) Overprotective clown fish Marlin (Albert Brooks in one of his best roles,) goes across the ocean to rescue his lost son Nemo, and along the way has a series of adventures while meeting a fabulous cast of characters including Dory (Ellen Degeneres) a blue tang who suffers from short term memory loss, surfer dude tortoise Crush (Andrew Stanton) and Bruce (Barry Humphries) a white shark trying to go vegetarian with mixed results. It was the highest grossing animated movie of all time AND helped establish Pixar’s reputation not only for CGI wizardry but also heartfelt storytelling. It won the Academy Award for Best Animated Picture and was nominated for three other awards including Best Original Screenplay.
People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.
Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep in a performance that while not necessarily Oscar worthy is certainly charming) was a talented young concert pianist who dreamed of playing at Carnegie Hall. Unfortunately an injury to her hands killed that dream, so Florence decided to go to Carnegie Hall as a singer. There was, however, one problem: Florence couldn’t sing. She was not only bad she was unbelievably, almost hysterically terrible, a fact her nearest and dearest were determined to shield her from.
Stephen Frears (Philomena, The Queen) directs this quaint, bittersweet, little bio which serves as a fable as well. We live in a culture that constantly tells us to follow our hearts and pursue our dreams no matter what. But what if like kindly, sweet, generous, dedicated, but tone deaf Florence, your striving to do something you just can’t do? Scenes of Florence singing aren’t just hard on the ears, they take Cringe Comedy to all new levels. And isn’t indulging her denial just setting her up for a greater fall, as Florence, convinced of her greatness, books a night in Carnegie Hall?
Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant
These are the questions that come to haunt Florence’s chief enablers; her adoring husband, failed actor St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), and her accompanist, Cosmo McMoon (Simon Helberg of The Big Bang Theory almost unrecognizable here and shockingly good in his first major big screen debut). While Cosmo fears his involvement with Florence dooms his chances of ever being taken seriously as a musician, St. Clair has a host of other complications. Florence and he adore each other, but having contracted syphilis from her first husband, their marriage must remain celibate and indeed St. Clair lives in a separate home with his beautiful young mistress, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson of The Girl on the Train).
As Florence’s health declines, St. Clair feels obligated to make her final days a happy dream. Hugh Grant reportedly came out of retirement just to work with Meryl Streep and it was well worth it. The man may have more grey hair and wrinkles than he did when he first charmed his way into American hearts as a gorgeous British leading man in Four Weddings and a Funeral, but he’s lost none of his charm, his comedic timing and, if anything, his skills at drama have only gotten better with time. It’s his best performance in years. Florence Foster Jenkins is not just the tale of a woman who couldn’t sing, but a love story for grown-ups.
It certainly feels like 2016 has been a never ending parade of losses from Alan Rickman, David Bowie, George Michael, Florence Henderson and so many more. Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, now join that list as well. We were all reeling from Carrie’s death at age 60 on December 27, a day after she suffered a heart attack, when we learned that her mother died after suffering a stroke. It was a stunning turn of events, taking two stars, two Hollywood icons, a mother and a daughter, a day apart.
Debbie, 84, was known for her breakout performance as an ingenue in Singin’ in the Rain, going toe-to-toe with Gene Kelly. She was nominated for an Oscar for her role in The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Her marriage to singing star Eddie Fisher, Carrie’s dad, came to an end after his affair with Elizabeth Taylor. He would marry Taylor who would then leave him for Richard Burton.
While Carrie will forever be celebrated for her iconic role as Princess Leia, Fisher’s career was longer and far more diverse than Star Wars. She made her film debut in Shampoo, starring opposite Warren Beatty. She went on to make many more films, including The Man With One Red Shoe, When Harry Met Sally, and the far underrated Soapdish alongside Sally Fields, Whoopi Goldberg, Kevin Kline, Elizabeth Shue, and Robert Downey, Jr. Her greatest talents, though, were put to good use as a writer. Fisher was known as being one of Hollywood’s best “script doctors,” sought after to fix troubled screenplays. She used to say her job was to make the girls smarter, but that the male lead actors were always asking her not to make the women funnier. She didn’t always comply. Fisher’s doctored screenplays included such successful films as Sister Act, The Last Action Hero, Outbreak, and The Wedding Singer. She also worked on The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles with her old colleague George Lucas.
Carrie Fisher at the Book Signing for “The Princess Diarist” at Barnes and Noble on November 28, 2016 in Los Angeles.
Her debut novel was the semi-autobiographical Postcards From the Edge,which she later wrote the screenplay for as well. (The movie version stars Meryl Streep, Shirley MacLaine, and Dennis Quaid. Don’t miss it!) She would write four additional novels, and they were all to some extent based on her own life. Wishful Drinking was published as a memoir following her one-woman play which she performed on Broadway.It in that work that she would pre-write her famous obituary: “No matter how I go, I want it reported that I drowned in moonlight, strangled by own bra.” Her last book, The Princess Diarist, was published on November 22, and she was busy promoting it, often with her loyal dog, Gary, at her side.
Fisher suffered from bipolar disorder and in the past had been addicted to cocaine and prescription drugs. She spoke honestly and bravely about all these issues, becoming an advocate for de-stigmatizing mental illness and the dangers of self-medication. Because of this Harvard University awarded Fisher its Annual Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism.
Go in peace Carrie and Debbie. Go in moonlight, dancing.
Photos from Bigstock. Top photo: Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds at at the “Debbie Reynolds: The Auction Finale” VIP Reception at Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio on May 14, 2014 in North Hollywood, CA.
Twenty years as a cabaret/concert artist has not dimmed the rigorous attention to high standards, curiosity, passion, personal and professional evolution of performer Barbara Fasano.
Barbara Fasano doesn’t remember a time there wasn’t music in her life. “My father was a terrific singer … Armstrong, Crosby, Ella. He had a fantastic record collection. Mom would be upstairs cooking and dad would be downstairs singing along with his records.” As a child, she peered through spokes in the basement banister watching her parents dance. Romance 101.
Mr. & Mrs. Fasano, Barbara (5), Barbara (10) Dad and Tippy
Ill for years, her mother passed when Barbara was 15. Though surrounded by a big Italian family, “everyone else was kind of into their own thing,” leaving the youngest sibling to discover who she was without a mother’s guidance. During our conversations, she refers to this again and again as having been pivotal to forming the woman she’s become. Love of music started as a way to express herself, to exorcise “chaotic” feelings. “I was my own Joni Mitchell. I wrote tons and tons of tortured boyfriend love songs and accompanied myself on terrible guitar.”
Ambitions were to become a serious actress and a singer in musicals, accent on the former. Barbara chose Hofstra University. The program apparently didn’t teach students how to go about getting a job. “I was studying Moliere and Comedia del Arte, then came out and discovered the business was more about Michael Bennett. It was kind of altruistic…cool to be a hungry artist. Capitalism hadn’t run so amok.” Summers were spent acting in Stock. At 24, she acquired her Equity Card playing Rizzo in Grease.
Barbara in Grease; In The Venetian Twins by Miriam Tulin
Barbara met her first husband, an A & R man, while temping at CBS Records. The couple lived in Australia and traveled. Their music was rooted in different genres (his was pop), but categories have always been irrelevant to this artist. From the beginning, she’s explored a potpourri of material, resistant to having limited taste or being slotted as one or the other ‘kind’ of performer.
“Cabaret was an accident.” On trips to New York, Barbara saw Harry Connick, Jr. on Broadway and Michael Feinstein in the storied Oak Room at The Algonquin Hotel. “The light really went off when I went to see Andrea (Marcovicci) there. I thought- Oh (she goes up an octave), you can do this? I would love to do this. It wasn’t just Andrea, it was the room, the style. It elevated cabaret.” Air around her vibrates as she remembers.
Early Headshots – Left Photo by Sal Salerno, Right Photo by Johnny Shakespeare
The couple also lived in Los Angeles before returning to Manhattan. In LA, Barbara ended up at a little club in Hollywood called Rose Tattoo where, after sitting-in awhile, she was asked to do her own show. It was a mélange of music called “Caught in the Act.” (Depend upon her for catchy titles.) During a monologue on her mother, the vegetarian literally made meatballs on stage while singing “Arrivederci Roma.” (Mom listened to “cornball Italian singers.”) In Manhattan, she took class, acted, and auditioned.
“You start out with these grand dreams. I’m gonna be that thing – the next Meryl Streep or something; Barbra Streisand, Whitney Houston, a great artist and superstar. So you pursue that. Then there’s a moment when you kind of realize, huh, oh, I don’t think that’s gonna happen and you have to reassess what you’re doing and why.”
At The Rose Tattoo with MD/Pianist Michael Orland
It wasn’t until a year later at The O’Neill Cabaret & Performance Conference that everything came together and she realized cabaret was a viable art form she could see herself a part of. Three icons particularly influenced her there. The first was straight-shooter Sylvia Syms. Barbara brought “Body and Soul” to one session. “You’ve got to look at this lyric,” Syms said demonstrating: I’m all for you BODY and soul. She stressed the word body. “Though not a ravishing beauty, Sylvia was primal, sexual, whereas I had stressed the word soul” – conceivably an unconscious nod to her own clear and present spirituality.
The second was Margaret Whiting. “Think of your relationship to the audience as if it’s a first date,” the veteran vocalist advised. “You don’t tell someone everything at first meeting,” Barbara clarifies. “You’re kind of friendly, charming, gradually letting your guard down… giving the audience a minute—to fall in love with you or at least really like you…You’re never just singing songs…in my world anyway. You’re always telling a story, always telling them about yourself. It’s about you even if it’s about Harold Arlen.”
Barbara Fasano and Julie Wilson
When alumni were invited back to next season’s final concert, Barbara deferentially approached third legend, Julie Wilson, whom she’d seen at Rainbow and Stars and who was now teaching at the O’Neill. The women found immediate affinity. Wilson became a devoted fan, mentor and lifelong friend. “She knew that it was all about telling the truth and giving. I think I got that from Julie.” Her voice softens.
Barbara divorced. A flexible secretarial job benevolently allowed use of a Xerox machine and radio interview time. She began to explore open mic nights at such as The Duplex, Eighty Eights, Danny’s and Rose’s Turn. “Now it’s such a scene. There was still an arty vibe to the feel of cabaret then. People were quirkier … I would get up and sing poetry set to music, standards, pop tunes, socially conscious things about American Indians.” She turned her focus to singing despite the odds. “Clubs were uptown, downtown, midtown; it was different. And even then, we thought cabaret was dying…”
The flyer for a Firebird Restaurant show -Photo by Michael Ian
The meticulous artist loves putting together shows. Even the thought of notebooks – “accoutrements” and research lights her up. “…I saw it was a place where I could endlessly work towards telling the truth. When you’re specific with what it is you’re feeling, it resonates. The more you can share your humanity, the more you make that connection. That’s the driving force behind my work – connection…Growing up with a parent that’s ill, there’s a lot that goes on. You want to connect with people because there’s a void, and maybe because you know things.” Barbara is the family archivist, carefully filing every arrangement as well as keeping the books. Her father, she “explains,” was an accountant. She actually used to play Office.
The first live show that put her on the map was Girls of Summer with MD/Pianist Rick Jensen. “I got humor from Rick and the love of the process. We’d have such a good time working. He made me trust that I’d get there. I was impatient…” Jensen helmed the show’s recording.
Barbara Fasano and Rick Jensen at her first Cabaret Convention
Donald Smith, creator of The Mabel Mercer Foundation, discovered Barbara at Danny’s and invited her to perform at the annual Cabaret Convention. “Michael Feinstein’s name is just below mine on the poster. My dad loved that.” The poster is framed in her cozy home. When Smith began a series called Cabaret Cavalcade at The Algonquin, she was given her first opportunity to appear in the iconic room.
In 2003, when Barbara wanted more of a jazz flavor, the vocalist turned to John Di Martino. “John actually played on the CD for a different flavor than Rick. I still have the chart he wrote in pencil…He brought a whole other world of colors I’d be hearing in my head and didn’t know how to incorporate.” With Jensen’s blessing she moved on. Some philosophies believe we attract those we need.
Barbara Fasano and John DiMartino at Danny’s
Meanwhile, in what he calls the mayonnaise belt of New Jersey, Eric Comstock also grew up in a house filled with music. Though reared on classical piano, it was clearly not his path. He participated in school shows, but preferred narrating or accompanying to singing. Eventually, the young man realized idols Fats Waller, Bobby Short, and Fred Astaire had not been legitimate vocalists. “These guys had small voices, but put it across.”
Mentors included the inspiration and penultimate style of Bobby Short, Charles DeForest, who “never phoned it in. Even when there was a cacophony around him, he’d totally go there… swing his ass off and could sing,” and Steve Ross. “Steve personifies the whole idea of charm onstage, his musicianship and taste in material is second to none. There’s a knowingness in his work that’s rare — the perfect combo of intellect, whimsy and soul.” Comstock, it should be noted, bears attributes similar to each of these artists.
David Kenny, Barbara Fasano and Eric Comstock at The WBAI Benefit
Barbara Fasano and Eric Comstock met at a 1997 WBAI Benefit. Both were involved in what they call respective romantic misadventures. It would be six years before he asked her for a date, first playing email footsie. “I feared the worst, a guy who looks like that whose name is Comstock, he’s probably going to be such a prig, a repressed wasp.” It was his use of the soigné word “supper” that pushed her into accepting. She laughs telling me. Barbara has one of the great laughs, thorough, infectious, as open as the woman herself. “We go out and all we do is laugh. We were so on the same wavelength.” They married a year later still barely having seen each other perform.
Despite responding to a duet request while engaged, finding it both fun and successful, the couple had no plans to create a collaborative career. It happened organically. Eric was asked to play and suggested his wife join him. Bookers, already familiar with Barbara, were delighted. “…people of course loved it because you know, this cute couple … At first, we just didn’t want to be apart, but it started to feel pretty good to perform together so we pursued it.” You have only to see Eric pat his wife’s hip on the way to the piano, or watch Barbara look towards him during a particularly warm lyric to see evidence of this in spades. It’s never been an act.
Wedding Photos by Jeff Fasano
Though the artists occasionally appear without each other, most gigs are tandem. They sincerely love working together. “It seems like we complete each other’s sentences musically. We’re always building the repertoire. Every time we go out, we put a show together differently. For ourselves. Often there’s a song just getting a sun tan at the back of your head…kind of gestating…”
Barbara sings every day, Eric plays every day. Separately. “He’d say he doesn’t have the same discipline, but I think he does. He doesn’t take vocal lessons, but he’s always at the piano…Sometimes we work on a current show. It’s not very regulated. Creativity can hit at 11 o’clock.” Mercifully, they’re both nocturnal.
Teaching also evolved organically beginning with workshops conducted at Singer’s Forum. The couple now offer Master Classes and private lessons both locally and out of state. A second season with The Neighborhood Playhouse begins in the fall.
Actor Danielle Herbert and Barbara Fasano
“You want to steer them, but you don’t want to create them in your image,” she reflects thoughtfully. “When I disagree, I say, if you want to do it, we’ll work on it, but here’s why I think it’s wrong. Sometimes I convince them, sometimes they convince me…It’s all about the lyric, the music follows. Hold my interest. Present it in a slightly theatrical way- we’re talking about art here. And look into faces. Musical chops are not enough. Just tell me your story. We’re your best friends…”
The team does most of their own booking. “It’s all about networking, finding out who’s booking who where. You learn how to approach people holding onto your own dignity and dealing with whatever you get at the other end of the line. If you’re someone who’s looking for stability, to be able to make plans, this is not for you. You sacrifice security, good clothes, not being able to be as generous as one would like to be with charities and friends. Emotionally, I think you gain. It keeps you modest. We all know none of that stuff matters…”
Barbara never lost her performance anxiety. In fact, she’s still “hugely nervous,” a state one never observes onstage. She has a ritual that “plugs me in to where I want to be to open up and give” but can’t tell me what it is for fear of taking its power away.
Barbara and Eric at Crazy Coqs in London-Photo by Tom Valence; Barbara and Eric-Hidden Treasure Benefit Concert-Photo by Stephen Sorokoff
“What has Eric taught you?” I ask her.
“Well, we’ve been married for 12 years, it might take me 12 years to tell you. More than anything what he’s really given me –besides plenty of technical things and lots of music – he’s a born sharer and a purist. For Eric, it’s about the music. He’s taught me to give it up for that and be proud of it. We live a really simple life. Everything’s funneled…He’s taught me to respect the artist that’s in me. We give what we have..”
“What has Barbara taught you?” I ask Eric.
“She’s made me so much a better artist and more interested in more varied kinds of material. She’s shown me acting. I consider her the director of much of what I do and all of what we do. This will sound prosaic, I suppose – the simple matter of when and how to sit on a stool, when to hold the microphone and when to put it on the stand, when she sits with me on the bench-stage pictures-none of that is winged, Barbara’s meticulous. We’re each other’s greatest fans. And we’ll never be bored”
Recording in a studio, then and now
For those of you able to grant wishes: Barbara Fasano would love to sing with a symphony orchestra and to record a CD with Eric, for which they constantly get asked.
Receiving her 2016 MAC Award- Photo by Maryann Lopinto; Busy Being Free – CD-Cover photo by Bill Westmoreland
Barbara Fasano is about as real as it gets which is reflected in her artistry. “This is the choice I’ve made and it’s the right choice. I love the challenge and I love how it keeps me honest. I can’t be in the world one way and on the stage another way. Eric and I look at each other and say, Thank God for you and we look around…thank God for (she sings a note) that.”
All unattributed quotes are Barbara Fasano.
Reflecting on the future in Long Island
Opening photo: Bill Westmoreland, Photographer
Barbara’s Upcoming Performance Dates:
Saturday, October1: BRIDGE ST. THEATRE, CATSKILL, NY Sunday, October 2: BIRDLAND, NYC Saturday, October 8: GERMANO’S, BALTIMORE Tuesday, October 18: ROSE HALL, CABARET CONVENTION
It’s often forgotten in the whirlwind of grilled hot dogs and sparklers but Labor Day was originally meant to celebrate well…labor and the hard working folks who perform it. So this year along with the mandatory barbecue and fireworks show, consider brushing up on the history of the workers movement with one of the following films. (And remember to tip your server!)
The Grapes of Wrath (1940) Directed by John Ford and based on John Steinbeck’s masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath recounts the story of the Joad family. After losing their farm in Oklahoma during the Great Depression, the Joads make an arduous journey across the west to California where they become migrant workers-and find their troubles have just begun. Starring Henry Fonda and John Carradine, it was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won two including Best Supporting Actress for Jane Darwell as Ma Joad and Best Director for Ford. It’s also widely considered one of the best movies ever made.
How Green Was My Valley (1941) Based on the Richard Llewellyn novel of the same name, this is the epic chronicle of the Morgan family. The Morgans are a hard scrabble close knit clan living in South Wales where the family members work in the coalfields. Over time disputes between the mine’s owners and workers as well as environmental despoliation from the coalfields tear apart the family and destroy the once idyllic village in which they’ve lived. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won five including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Supporting Actor.
Norma Rae (1979) Based on the true story of Crystal Lee Sutton, Norma Rae tells how its title character (played by the indomitable Sally Field) becomes a union organizer at the local textiles firm after her health and that of her co-workers is compromised. It was nominated for four Academy Awards and won two including Best Original Song and Best Actress; prompting Field’s immortal “You like me! You really like me!” acceptance speech for her second Oscar win for Places in the Heart. That quote was, in fact, a reference to dialogue in Norma Rae.
Silkwood (1983) Written by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen, directed by Mike Nichols (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The Graduate) and starring Meryl Streep, Cher, and Kurt Russell, inspired by the life of Karen Silkwood. Silkwood was a nuclear whistleblower and union activist who died under extremely suspicious circumstances at the same time she was investigating alleged criminal behavior the plutonium plant where she worked. Silkwood was nominated for five Academy awards including Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay
Made in Dagenham (2010) Directed by Nigel Cole (Calendar Girls, Saving Grace) Made in Dagenham tells the true story of the Ford Sewing Machinists strike in 1968. The strike was prompted by sexual discrimination against its female employees who demanded equal pay. Starring Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins, Miranda Richardson, and Rosamund Pike it was nominated for four BAFTA awards including best supporting actress for Richardson and Outstanding British Film.
Author Michael Schulman, a contributor and arts editor for The New Yorker, became particularly intrigued with Meryl Streep because of her self-effacing acceptance speeches. How, he thought, can the foremost actor of our generation (not, his, he’s younger), be surprised at and humble about her success? “To be called the greatest living actor, something even my own mother wouldn’t sanction is a curse…” the actor has said. “When I heard my name, I could hear half of America saying her again?!” (her Oscar acceptance speech for The Iron Lady)
Was she ever just a struggling, 20-something performer, Schulman asked himself? Did she arrive from Yale in full bloom, preternatural talent ripe? “When most actresses have reached their sell-by date, she continues to carry movies…so little is known about the early days…The book is not a soup to nuts biography, it’s about her origins.” The author met the very private Streep only once, for a Talk of the Town piece, not this later volume. He interviewed 80 of the artist’s friends and associates, dug through archival material and viewed performance on film and video.
This thoroughly entertaining glimpse at Schulman’s book begins with Mary Louise Streep of Bernardsville, New Jersey, “a brassy bully who didn’t care how she looked.” In fact, the preteen photo resembles a librarian. She studied singing with an opera coach (I hear a few ah has out there), but changed priorities upon discovering boys.
“Essentially, she decided to be another person.” Streep studied the girls in Seventeen and Mademoiselle Magazines. She actually said/wrote that she practiced giggling and became purposefully deferential so boys would appreciate her. She went blonde. The next photo we see projected is the fair haired young woman as a cheerleader. She was Homecoming Queen. “They liked me better and I liked that, but this was real acting.”
“Super Hero origins are all about their learning to apply their powers.” This heroine’s journey began at Vassar when it was an all girls school. She stopped “faking her way” and found herself making lifelong friends. “My brain woke up” (Streep) Schulman reads excerpts from letters she wrote to an earlier high school boyfriend then stationed in Vietnam. Streep was searching for something that took her out of herself. Even after her first appearance starring in Strindberg’s Miss Julie, she was ambivalent. Still, she applied to Yale- because the admission fee was $25 less than Julliard.
Schulman tells us about early New York roles featuring humor and character, not as an ingénue, calling out the artist’s lack of vanity and fear as well as obvious empathy. He shows us photographs from Arthur Wing Pinero’s Trelawney of the Wells (at Lincoln Center), and Happy End (Weill/Brecht/Lane.)
Streep’s breakout appearance, he suggests, was in the tandem Twenty Seven Wagons Full of Cotton (Tennessee Williams) and A Memory of Two Mondays (Arthur Miller.) In one of several wonderful descriptions of auditions shared by fellow thespians, John Lithgow describes her chatting amiably with director Arvin Brown as she took down her hair, changed her shoes, and stuffed her brassiere with tissues.
In the first play, Streep played a languid, brassy, southern sexpot; in the second, a steely, urban secretary that was so different, people didn’t recognize her. I can testify to that. I was there with my mother who double checked her program. We both felt in the presence of astonishing talent.
Joe Papp’s production Measure for Measure in Central Park introduced Streep to John Cazale who was older, an established film actor, and by all reports, extremely eccentric. (Cazale played Fredo in The Godfather.) The two fell madly in love and moved in together. Tragically, he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. At 28, Streep dropped everything to join the cast of TheDeer Hunter in order to be with Cazale during his last film. “They needed a girl between two guys and I was it.” Al Pacino was floored by her devotion which is, he says, the first thing he thinks of upon seeing Streep. Cazale died shortly after. He never saw the film.
“She got into movies despite herself,” Schulman tells us. “This was the first of 19 Academy Award nominations. Six months later, Streep married sculptor Don Gummer, the second great love of her life. They have three daughters.” Then came The Taming of The Shrew in Central Park, Woody Allen’s Manhattan and Kramer vs. Kramer the film that arguably made her a star (and garnered her first Academy Award.) Schulman says he writes quite a bit about the pivotal juncture, ending with it.
Apparently Streep’s recollection of that audition was diametrically opposed to those others present. She recalls telling the men that as written Joanna was “an ogre, a princess, an ass,” further informing those who might hire her that the character was a reflection of the struggle women go through all across the country; that she had a reason for leaving and a reason for coming back. If she was to be hired, rewriting must take place. (Streep actually ended up rewriting parts of the role, including courtroom testimony. “Once she applies her sense of empathy,” Schulman comments, “characters that were villains become heroes…think of The Devil Wears Prada.”)
Director Robert Benton and Dustin Hoffman remember the audition being a disaster, Streep’s hardly saying anything. Hoffman wanted to hire her because of Cazale, because he felt she could draw upon fresh pain. During the shoot, he taunted and even once slapped her to evoke what he felt necessary in the only method acting way he knew how. “He’s bragged about this since….” The floor opened to questions after Schulman’s talk.
Michael Schulman speaks to Streep’s feelings about service, sacrifice, femininity, feminism, and empathy with some insight. By focusing on a particular, lesser known period, he illuminates and entertains. All the chapter heads call out a major role except one entitled Fredo. This is likely a very good book.