Monday, December 31, 2007

Best of 2007

Here's my idiosyncratic "Best of 2007" list. Most of the entries here are not things that were originally published or premiered in 2007, since I'm always behind the times, reading books and seeing movies that are a year or more old. This is my own, personal year in review, with links to older blog posts when relevant.

Best book read for the first time: The Virgin in the Garden or Babel Tower. Objectively speaking, Babel is the greater achievement, but I just adore Virgin.

Best book rediscovered: Jane Eyre. I first read it when I was 12 and it didn't do a lot for me. But it was a godsend when I read it again last spring.

Best time in the theatre: Hard to choose. Seeing excellent productions of The Taming of the Shrew, The Cherry Orchard, and Rabbit Hole in the span of three days? The perfect first act of Passion Play in Chicago? Hearing the roars and applause for Cyrano de Bergerac at the Comédie Française and knowing I'd just seen a national treasure? Or, if "in the theatre" can mean working backstage, helping out with Marie Antoinette this summer?
Favorite recent movie seen: The Lives of Others (Does this count as a 2006 or a 2007 release? I don't know. All I know is, I loved it.)

Favorite old movie rediscovered: Vertigo or Strangers on a Train.
New favorite female singers: Amy Winehouse and Natalie Dessay (eclectic enough for you?)

New passions discovered: cooking, photography, opera

Best meal: My theater-themed dinner party when I was in France. Well, the party itself was a bit of a disaster, but the food--especially the pear, chocolate, and almond tart--somewhat redeemed it. Someday I'll post the menu...

Best recipes: I probably made Easy Tarte Tatin (it uses pre-bought pastry) more than anything else, and I'm awfully proud of inventing a Clafoutis recipe all by myself, in my lousy kitchen at school.

Favorite photograph taken: This was at St. Peter's Basilica, Rome. I balanced the camera against the base of a statue--and got an almost divine clarity.

Places visited for the first time: Bordeaux, Rouen, Reims, the Loire chateaux, Prague, Pisa, Florence, Siena, Rome, Cape May, Joseph (Oregon), Chicago

My first experience as an urbanite: Paris (what a way to begin, huh?)

Proudest achievement: Writing a 4,300-word essay on special effects in the films of Alfred Hitchcock--entirely in French

My motto: "It could've been a lot worse."

2007 in Books

This isn't going to be an account of what I thought the best books published in 2007 were--due to my aversion to hardcovers, I hardly read anything the year it comes out. Instead, this is about the annotated list I keep of all the books I read each year. Probably my system for this is one of those idiosyncratic things that only makes sense to me. I count some books I read for school and not others. I don't count plays because it takes me an hour to read a play but a week to read a novel, so including plays seems like an unfair way of inflating the statistics.

Nonetheless, here's the stats for this year, and the list of titles:

37 books read in total. 14 British, 12 American, 8 French (7 non-translated, 1 translated), 1 Colombian, 1 Ancient Greek, 1 Ancient Roman. 20 books by 19 different male authors; 17 books by 8 different female authors. 24 read for fun, 13 for school. 30 fiction, 7 non-fiction. 26 new reads, 11 re-reads.
I am most happy with the stats for American authors and for non-fiction--I'd resolved to read more of each and think I succeeded.

My resolutions for 2008: continue reading literature in translation, continue reading nonfiction, read more plays (I have a ton of plays sitting unread on my shelf), and find a better way of cataloguing the plays I read.

Later today I'll be posting a "Best of 2007" where you'll find out what my favorite books were out of these 37. But I'll let you know that the worst book I had to read was Carmen, Prosper Merimée's novella, in the original French. Trust me, Bizet's opera is sooo much better...

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Two Ways of Classifying Playwrights

I've just started digging into this week's New York Times Magazine-- the annual "The Lives They Lived" issue, highlighting interesting people who died in 2007. In past years, my favorite articles in this section have been Tony Kushner's short plays (check out his works on Nixon's shrink and on two unusual women) but he didn't contribute one this year.

Meanwhile, I'm also reading Wendy Wasserstein's compilation of essays Shiksa Goddess, and it includes a "The Lives They Lived" article from 1996, about Martha Entenmann, founder of the baked-goods empire and inventor of the see-through cake box. That got me thinking about something I heard once and remember often, about writers and food:

It's summer 2006, about ten o'clock at night, and I and seven other winners of the Young Playwrights' Contest are sitting in the Morning Star Diner devouring big slices of pie with Lucas and Sheri, who work at Young Playwrights. We thank them for the food and the invaluable experience of feeling like a successful New York writer.

Sheri says, "There's two kinds of playwrights in this world: those who lose weight when they're writing a play, and those who gain weight." She explains that the people who lose weight stay up all night and subsist on cigarettes and coffee and alcohol when they have to finish a play. Meanwhile, the gainers write in cafes or restaurants, or they need to feel cozy and comforted while writing, and so they snack a lot.

Some of my fellow winners, mostly the guys, are attracted by the macho romance of being one of the weight-losing playwrights: drinking and smoking and sweating out a Hemingwayesque masterpiece. (Some of them even use typewriters.) But I sheepishly admit, "I'm probably a gainer."

Sheri and Lucas assure me that I'm in good company: Tony Kushner and Wendy Wasserstein are also gainers. "You can always tell when Tony's working on a new play!" laughs Sheri.

I still think about this way of classifying writers. And Lucas and Sheri's assessments seem to be spot-on. Wasserstein writes about food in several of the Shiksa Goddess essays, and I just watched a documentary about Kushner called Wrestling with Angels, where he talks about becoming 100 pounds overweight because he always wrote with a box of Entenmann's chocolate chip cookies by his side.

So what is it about playwrights and Entenmann's? Have I just been eating the wrong cookies all these years? If I switch to Entenmann's, will I suddenly acquire the eloquence of Kushner and Wasserstein?

It's worth a shot. Except, of course, for the "gaining weight" aspect.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Sex, Theft, Friendship and Musical Theater

That's the accurate subtitle of Marc Acito's comic novel How I Paid for College, which I zipped through over the past few days.

Acito lives in Portland and I have met him a few times, when he's emceed Portland Center Stage's "Commission Commission!" benefit. He's just as hilarious on the fly as he is in the pages of this novel. How I Paid for College also won the Oregon Book Award as "Best Novel" in 2005, which is pretty cool, especially when you consider that usually they give this prize to the kind of "typical literary fiction that is made to win prizes": thick and serious and weighty, with bonus points if it takes place in some dull little town in rural Oregon. For them to give it to a fast and funny novel about a teenager in the New Jersey suburbs is a welcome change.

How I Paid for College takes place in 1983 and is narrated by Edward Zanni, a 17-year-old aspiring singer/dancer/actor. (Vocab lesson of the day: zanni is the Italian word for "the crazy servant characters in a commedia dell'arte play" and it is where our English word zany comes from.) Edward is convinced that he'll never be happy unless he goes to Juilliard, but his father refuses to pay for Edward to do anything except major in business. So Edward and his friends team up to embezzle, blackmail, defraud, and generally steal the tuition money any way they can. As a narrator, Edward provides laughs when you realize how his inflated perception of himself differs from the way he appears to others, but he also makes some very witty observations. I fell in love with the book on page 10, when Edward writes "I duck in through a side door that only the Play People know about. (Play People. Like we're not real. We're the realest people in this preppy prison.)" Every high-school theater nerd has felt the same way.

The style of the novel is like an '80s teen movie with a twist. For instance, as befits a teen hero, Edward has a girlfriend, Kelly, who is both sweet and gorgeous. But Kelly likes sex more than the average girl-next-door heroine does, and furthermore, Edward isn't sure he wants a hot girlfriend after all--maybe he wants a hot boyfriend instead. Someone like Doug, the sensitive and totally-heterosexual jock who has started to do theatre. Meanwhile, the nerd (Nathan Nudelman--great name) takes almost sadistic glee in coming up with crazy illegal schemes, and the hot foreign student (Ziba) is Persian, an ethnicity underrepresented in teen movies.

One of my favorite characters is Paula, Edward's best friend, who is starting her first year at Juilliard. Big-bosomed, big-hearted, and wildly self-dramatizing, Paula is the kind of girl who can be found in every drama club and she perks up the book whenever she appears.

These kids feel the typical teen angst over their love lives and their futures, but one great and refreshing thing is how they never feel ashamed or guilty about having sex, or about breaking the law. And they do a lot of both. So much so that although the movie rights have been sold, I don't know how this can be made into a film that won't offend half of America, unless they seriously change the narrative. Though Edward's sexual confusion is handled in what seems to me a sensitive and realistic (if humorous) manner, you can't deny that he is hungry for experience with both girls and guys, and likes it that way. And then, there's all the illegal activity: funny and entertaining as this novel is, it makes you root for a teenager to pull off increasingly complex federal crimes!

Acito overuses a few of his running gags, but also includes some very funny ones (Edward gets mistaken for a waiter whenever he goes to a restaurant, but he's still convinced that he's destined to be a Broadway star). There are also lots of jokes and references that are bound to appeal to the theatre crowd. The storyline, which at first seems as easygoing and ambling as Edward himself, soon becomes much tighter: characters and locations that were introduced early on will pop up again with surprising results. Even the sex scenes are usually necessary to the narrative, redefining character relationships and not just livening up a dull chapter with some titillation. Because there's hardly a dull moment in How I Paid for College--and I'll be excited to read the sequel, Attack of the Theater People, when it comes out in 2008!

Visit Marc Acito's official website for more information.

Image from

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Don't play "Lyra" on your lyre

As I mentioned in my previous post, I went to see The Golden Compass this week and wrote an IMDB review of it. Basically, the beginning and ending of the movie were clunky, but the closer you got to the middle, the more entertaining it was. In fact, the very first and very last moments were worst of all. My first moments in the cinema were taken up by some god-awful previews for kiddie movies that are going to come out in the next few months. And then at the end, over the credits, they played a horrendous song called "Lyra," by Kate Bush. Dad and I had to flee the theater, it was so awful.

But you know what song always makes me think of Lyra and His Dark Materials--and is a much better song to boot? "Ray of Light" by Madonna!

"Ray of Light" is upbeat and energetic where "Lyra" is New Age claptrap, and the lyrics make me picture Lyra speeding between the universes on her heroic quest. And hey, the rays of light are kind of like the golden streams of Dust...and the song belongs to that same late-1990s cultural moment as the His Dark Materials trilogy.
She's got herself a universe, gone quickly
For the call of thunder threatens everyone...

Faster than the speeding light, she's flying
Trying to remember where it all began
She's got herself a little piece of heaven
Waiting for the time when earth shall be as one

Ah well, I suppose it's more appropriate for The Subtle Knife or The Amber Spyglass, once Lyra has actually traveled to another universe... Filmmakers, are you listening?

Happy Holidays from Portland

I feel a little like Garrison Keillor, "It's been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon..." Because it's been a quiet week in Portland, OR, since I got back, and I'm wondering why I don't feel more energized. Sure, I've seen some movies and one piece of theatre, read some books, eaten better food than I have all month, celebrated Christmas with the family... But I'm also very lethargic, not thinking very hard about the play that consumed me during my last week at Vassar (and which I still need to finish) nor very hard about this blog, either, it seems.

Sunday was a good, Portlandy day. I went downtown to see A Christmas Carol at Portland Center Stage, adapted by my mentor, Mead Hunter. I also knew several of the cast members from various summers at JAW. The adaptation was very faithful to Dickens' novella (which I usually make a point of reading every year)--it moved swiftly and did not pad things out with extraneous local color or period detail. It understood that the heart of the show is Scrooge's journey, and once each episode had made its point, it ended. And, though I just complained about the excessive use of narration in Doris to Darlene, I did not mind its more limited use here.

The cast was big (15 adults, 5 children) and expertly choreographed/ doubled to make it look like there were even more cast members than there actually were. One standout was Julianna Jaffe playing the Ghost of Christmas Present à la Sara Ramirez in Spamalot. I saw the show on closing day and couldn't help wondering if some of the performances had gotten overly broad since opening night--especially Scrooge's (Wesley Mann). Several times, it seemed like he acted self-consciously "funny" to make the audience laugh, rather than playing the truth of the character. Musical choices and arrangements were also good--my favorite being the Middle-Eastern orchestration of "Ding Dong Merrily On High" to accompany a scene where Young Scrooge reads The Arabian Nights.

After the show I went to Powell's and bought six wonderful books using the store credit I'd amassed... Santa brought me even more books two days later, so this will be a wonderfully literary vacation. And then, my parents and I reenacted our holiday tradition of a dinner at Higgins restaurant. They are obsessed with a seasonal item on the menu called the Smoked Goose Breast Salad, and me, I don't mind Higgins' cooking either. I've only ever eaten at Higgins in December, and most years, I get the Magret and Confit of Duck with sour cherries and spaetzel. Mmm. Holidays in Portland.

On Christmas Eve, my father and I hedged our bets by going both to The Golden Compass movie (y'know, the movie that Conservative Catholics are all up in arms about) and to 10 PM Catholic Mass. After all my anticipation, you can read my thoughts about The Golden Compass here. I wasn't expecting perfection, and I ended up being mostly entertained. And even though the dialogue was careful to sidestep around Pullman's anti-religious statements, I liked how the production design didn't: the agents of the Magisterium were definitely wearing ecclesiastical robes, and the wall of the Magisterium office in Trollesund was painted with haloed saints. Still, I'm not quite sure why Catholics specifically are attacking this movie, since, even when I first read The Golden Compass as a nine-year-old who wanted to take Catholicism very seriously, I never thought of it as an attack on one specific religion. More an attack on any religion or any cult that wants to control its followers' lives.

As for Christmas mass, since I don't consider myself a Catholic anymore, I go for the singing, and to see the people at church who still remember me. I feel more spiritual when I'm singing those great old songs (and they have to be the rousing old hymns, not the newfangled gentle folky stuff) than during any other part of the ceremony.

And since then...not much. Dad and I made the Gratin Dauphinois from Jeffrey Steingarten's It Must've Been Something I Ate (which I blogged about wanting to cook last August)--turned out very well. So it's been a fat and lazy week--much appreciated after all those finals, but I do hope to shake off this lethargy sometime soon and really get out there and enjoy my vacation!

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Fervent Years

I just this morning finished reading The Fervent Years, Harold Clurman's account of the Group Theatre from its origins to its collapse. My high-school theater teacher gave it to me, recommending it as "the best book ever written about the American theater," or some such, but I never got around to reading it until now.

I couldn't have read it at a better time, though. The Group Theatre existed from 1931 to 1941, and as you know I'm writing a play set in 1934 and find that decade fascinating. Clurman knows that the Group was a product of its time, and charts how the plays it produced mirrored the shifting national mood. Also, this spring, I'm going to be part of a theatre group of my own--under the auspices of the Drama Department, some of us at Vassar are going to spend six weeks forming an ensemble to put on three new plays as well and as efficiently as we can--so the book has got me thinking more about the process of making theatre.

Clurman was one of the Group's three founders (along with Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg) and the only one to stick with it until the end. Naturally, this provides him with a valuable and unique perspective--he is very opinionated as to the Group's successes and failures, and does not spare himself from criticism. He is also a good writer who can make interesting pronouncements about the time and place in which he lived. His analysis of how Americans fear unequivocal statements and big theories, and instead favor the ability to be fluid and ambiguous and adaptable (p. 217), will stick with me for a long time, I think.

One of the most interesting aspects is Clurman's portrait of his friend and colleague Clifford Odets, a truly fervent character. Odets began in the Group as an actor of great enthusiasm and little talent, but with a striking personality that combined "an appetite for the broken and rundown" with "a bursting love for the beauty immanent in people, a burning belief in the day when this beauty would actually shape the external world" (117). From this impulse he wrote plays; he and the Group experienced their greatest successes with the one-two punch of Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing in 1935. This success is inspirational; but what follows, Odets' slow downward spiral, torn between the Group and Hollywood, is a cautionary tale for any young playwright. I'm curious to learn more about Odets now and went looking for his plays in Powell's yesterday, but, would you believe, they only had a single book by him? Meanwhile, next to him, Sean O'Casey gets an entire shelf. I don't understand it.

I know it's still hard to make theater in America, and maybe I'm just naively optimistic (maybe I have to be naively optimistic in order to even consider a career as a playwright) but I think things have gotten better since the Group Theatre era. Throughout the second half of The Fervent Years, Clurman constantly reiterates that even though the Group was critically acclaimed and doing good work, it was doomed to failure, because it was trapped in the "Broadway" model for producing and mounting plays. Every time the Group got a new script, Clurman had to go around raising money for it, often begging people like Odets to put up some of the money themselves. The Group had no steady source of income; it had to find backers and give them a cut of the profits.

But nowadays, theatres are allowed to incorporate as nonprofit organizations, and most of them take advantage of it. When some Portland actors, directors and techies formed Third Rail, the most successful new company in town, they did it as a nonprofit. They plan their seasons in advance and sell 3-show subscription packages to provide cash before they even start rehearsing, and the website includes a way for visitors to donate money. Instead of needing to raise thousands of dollars from a single backer and then make a return on the investment, they can take smaller amounts of money from more sources. I'd wager that they also scope out grant opportunities and write grant requests; something that was not possible in Clurman's day because the infrastructure was not there.

The 1930s were indeed a fascinating time in the American theatre, more idealistic, more fervent than anything we know today. But I'm glad to live in the 21st century, where I can still read Odets' plays and Clurman's books and become inspired by them, yet can be thankful that good theatre is no longer synonymous with Broadway playhouses and for-profit production.

Photo from

Friday, December 21, 2007

Cecilia in a Green Dress

Atonement, the movie, is getting mixed reviews, but one thing that everyone is raving about is Keira Knightley's green evening dress. A slinky Art Deco column of emerald-colored silk, there's something iconic about it--I'm having the same reaction to it as I did to Nicole Kidman's red gown in Moulin Rouge, and I haven't even seen the movie yet.

The idea for this spectacular green dress originated in Ian McEwan's novel. I've always had a weakness for scenes in novels that describe pretty clothes--and I don't mean ostentatious chick-lit name-dropping, but an appreciation for color and style and the effect that clothes have on the characters. If the book is set in the past and describes dresses which I could never hope to buy at the department store--and if it mentions several dresses in the same scene--so much the better. Atonement hits all of these buttons. Cecilia, after some events earlier in the day that left her rather shaken, is trying to choose a dress that will give her confidence during a small dinner party. But the task is more difficult than she imagined:
On two occasions within half an hour, Cecilia stepped out of her bedroom, caught sight of herself in the gilt-framed mirror at the top of the stairs and, immediately dissatisfied, returned to her wardrobe to reconsider. Her first resort was a black crêpe de chine dress which, according to the dressing table mirror, bestowed by means of clever cutting a certain severity of form. Its air of invulnerability was heightened by the darkness of her eyes. Rather than offset the effect with a string of pearls, she reached in a moment's inspiration for a necklace of pure jet. [...]

But the public gaze of the stairway mirror as she hurried toward it revealed a woman on her way to a funeral, an austere, joyless woman moreover, whose black carapace had affinities with some form of matchbox-dwelling insect. A stag beetle! It was her future self, at eighty-five, in widow's weeds. She did not linger--she turned on her heel, which was also black, and returned to her room. [...]

She stepped out of the black crêpe dress where it fell to the floor, and stood in her heels and underwear, surveying the possibilities on the wardrobe racks, mindful of the passing minutes. [...]

She ran a hand along the few feet of personal history, her brief chronicle of taste. Here were the flapper dresses of her teenage years, ludicrous, limp, sexless things they looked now, and though one bore wine stains and another a burn hole from her first cigarette, she could not bring herself to turn them out. Here was a dress with the first timid hint of shoulder pads, and others followed more assertively, muscular older sisters throwing off the boyish years, rediscovering waistlines and curves, dropping their hemlines with self-sufficient disregard for the hopes of men. Her latest and best piece, bought to celebrate the end of finals, before she knew about her miserable third, was the figure-hugging dark green bias-cut backless evening gown with a halter neck. Too dressy to have its first outing at home. She ran her hand further back and brought out a moiré silk dress with a pleated bodice and scalloped hem--a safe choice since the pink was muted and musty enough for eveing wear. The triple mirror thought so too. [...]

Perhaps there was now a harsher light at the top of the stairs, for she had never had this difficulty with the mirror there before. Even as she approached from a distance of forty feet, she saw that it was not going to let her pass; the pink was in fact innocently pale, the waistline was too high, the dress flared like an eight-year-old's party frock. All it needed was rabbit buttons. [...] It would not help her state of mind to go down looking like, or believing she looked like, Shirley Temple.

More in resignation than irritation or panic, she returned to her room. [...] She knew what she had to do and she had known it all along. She owned only one outfit that she genuinely liked, and that was the one she should wear. She let the pink dress fall on top of the black and, stepping contemptuously through the pile, reached for the gown, her green backless post-finals gown. As she pulled it on she approved of the firm caress of the bias cut through the silk of her petticoat, and she felt sleekly impregnable, slippery and secure; it was a mermaid who rose to meet her in her own full-length mirror.
For the sake of brevity, I left out some passages that delve further into Cecilia's state of mind, but even shortened, this is great writing-- combining sensuous description, sociological observation (changing fashions) and character development. But to me this scene has always seemed an echo of one of my other favorite clothes-in-literature scenes: Scarlett O'Hara trying to choose a dress for the Twelve Oaks barbecue near the beginning of Gone with the Wind.
What dress would best set off her charms and make her most irresistible to Ashley? Since eight o'clock she had been trying on and rejecting dresses, and now she stood dejected and irritable in lace pantalets, linen corset cover and three billowing lace and linen petticoats. Discarded garments lay about her on the floor, the bed, the chairs, in bright heaps of color and straying ribbons.

The rose organdie with long pink sash was becoming, but she had worn it last summer when Melanie visited Twelve Oaks and she'd be sure to remember it. And might be catty enough to mention it. The black bombazine, with its puffed sleeves and princess lace collar, set off her white skin superbly, but it did make her look a trifle elderly. Scarlett peered anxiously in the mirror at her sixteen-year-old face as if expecting to see wrinkles and sagging chin muscles. It would never do to appear sedate and elderly before Melanie's sweet youthfulness. The lavender barred muslin was beautiful with those wide insets of lace and net about the hem, but it had never suited her type. It would suit Carreen's delicate profile and wishy-washy expression perfectly, but Scarlett felt that it made her look like a schoolgirl. It would never do to appear schoolgirlish beside Melanie's poised self. The green plaid taffeta, frothing with flounces and each flounce edged in green velvet ribbon, was most becoming, in fact her favorite dress, for it darkened her eyes to emerald. But there was unmistakably a grease spot on the front of the basque. Of course, her brooch could be pinned over the spot, but perhaps Melanie had sharp eyes. There remained varicolored cotton dresses which Scarlett felt were not festive enough for the occasion, ball dresses and the green sprigged muslin she had worn yesterday. But it was an afternoon dress. It was not suitable for a barbecue, for it had only tiny puffed sleeves and the neck was low enough for a dancing dress. But there was nothing else to do but wear it. After all she was not ashamed of her neck and arms and bosom, even if it was not correct to show them in the morning.

Cecilia and Scarlett run into similar problems: a black dress that ages them, a pastel dress that makes them look babyish, dresses rendered unwearable by cigarette burns or grease spots. And the dress they finally end up choosing, the one that makes them feel the most confident, also happens to be green in color and slightly too formal and sexy in style. I just noticed that my bookshelf has Ian McEwan shelved right next to Margaret Mitchell--as if the two books were communing with each other.

Indeed, Gone With the Wind is a treasure trove of clothing descriptions: besides this, there's the dainty gowns at the Confederate ball contrasting with Scarlett's black mourning attire, the famous dress that she makes for herself out of curtains, the scandalously low-cut gown that Rhett forces her to wear to Ashley and Melanie's party... But it often seems like the most renowned novelists consider their characters' clothing frivolous, and leave the extended descriptions of dresses to girly romance novelists like Mitchell. That's why I love it so much when someone like McEwan uses his talented pen to describe what his characters are wearing--he not only has a good eye for clothing styles, he understands that they can tell so much about the person wearing them.

Photo of Keira Knightley from Photo of Vivien Leigh from; see also the accompanying blog post

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Quand tu es près de moi...

One unintentional side effect of spending 4.5 months in France during the 2007 elections: an eternal fascination with Sarko, Ségo, and their ilk. Now Sarko--recently divorced from former fashion model Cécilia--has a new girlfriend, the model-turned-singer Carla Bruni. There's probably much to be said about men with Napoleon complexes and the beautiful women who love them...some trenchant commentary about gender and power dynamics in the modern world.

But mostly I just think this news is weird because Bruni's CD Quelqu'un m'a dit is the only album that has ever compelled me, when I heard it playing in a store, to corner the clerk and ask him what this great music was. (Actually, this happened twice before I finally broke down and bought the album. Once in a used bookstore in the town where my grandma lives, and once about four months later in the Poughkeepsie art-supply store.)

It's not that Carla Bruni has a great voice or anything. It's very husky, breathy, whispery, she can barely sustain a long note. But something about her music is captivating. She writes most of her own songs and the lyrics sound pretty clever to me--nicely rhymed and sharply observed. (The album's sole cover song, "La noyée" by Serge Gainsbourg, is also excellent.) The song "L'excessive" plays around with words that have an "x" sound in them, and "Le toi du moi" is a funny, rapid-fire list of metaphors for the narrator's closeness to her lover:
Tu es l'effet et moi la cause
Toi le divan moi la névrose
Toi l'épine moi la rose
Tu es la tristesse moi le poète
Tu es la Belle et moi la Bête
Tu es le corps et moi la tête

You are the effect and I the cause
You're the couch; I'm the neurotic
You the thorn, I the rose
You are sadness, I the poet
You are Beauty and I the Beast
You are the body and I the head
Meanwhile, a song like "Tout le monde" is great for listening to on a rainy night when you're feeling depressed. It's a sad ballad about how everyone in the world feels lonely, has "remnants of dreams," etc. But now that Bruni is dating Sarko, I have to laugh, too, at these lines that used to make me melancholy:
Il faudrait que tout l'monde réclame auprès des autorités,
Une loi contre toute notre solitude,
Que personne ne soit oublié.

Everyone should demand from the authorities
A law against all of our solitude,
So that no one would be forgotten.
I just imagine Bruni persuading Sarko to sign into effect this "law against solitude," and, well, that makes me laugh.

Because of Carla Bruni's whispery voice and the low-key instrumentation (mostly just some acoustic guitars), Quelqu'un m'a dit is a very intimate feel like you're all alone with Bruni and she's singing right to you. The song "Le ciel dans un chambre" sounds downright post-coital. And that's what makes this news that she's dating the President of France so strange: you listen to her music and you get a sense of what it would be like to date her yourself. That intimacy is very desirable in a singer--but not so much in a First Lady!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

A Groove on the Turntable of Life: "Doris to Darlene"

de'Adre Aziza as Doris/Darlene, Michael Crane as Vic Watts, and David Chandler as a talk-show host. Photo: Joan Marcus

As planned, I saw Doris to Darlene: A Cautionary Valentine today at Playwrights Horizons. The play caught at many of the same issues I discussed in my anticipatory blog post about girl-group music: the relationships between young black singers and Phil Spector-ish record moguls, the surprising power of a sweet girl-group melody... So I'm definitely on the same page as playwright Jordan Harrison with regards to his play's themes and messages.

But I'm not sure we agree regarding dramatic and narrative form. Much of Doris to Darlene involves the characters narrating their own stories and thoughts in the third person, which IMO is a very tricky thing to do well. Jordan explains his rationale for this choice:
“To me it feels like a little bit of a gift to the character each time they get to speak in the third person [...] We’re very close to them at that point. [...] There’s a difference between a silence and Doris’ Grandmother speaking the line ‘Grandmother doesn’t say anything.’ That gives it a different weight; it’s a stern act… A silence wouldn’t give us the same information.” (citation)
I tend to disagree. For me, a line like "Grandmother doesn't say anything" takes me out of the scene, makes me feel more distant from the character, and makes me think that the playwright doesn't have enough faith in the dramatic value of a pause, a gesture, or his actors' ability to convey emotion without speaking. Sometimes, when the scene is nonrealistic to begin with, the device works--when the characters of Doris to Darlene are alone in their heads, speaking their inner thoughts aloud, and their words and desires echo from century to century. But when Doris is talking to her grandmother in a realistic dialogue, and Grandma suddenly comes out with "Grandmother doesn't say anything"--nah, it doesn't work for me. A play can only take so much "telling, not showing" until it loses a significant amount of dramatic tension.

In general terms, Doris to Darlene is about lonely people who learn to communicate by creating and listening to music, so I guess you've got to show both the initial isolation and the eventual communication. The problem is that the latter is much more interesting, and requires less third-person narration. One of the best scenes in the show comes when record producer Vic and singer Doris/Darlene (Vic changed her name to make it more commercial) demonstrate for a skeptical talk-show host how "Wall of Sound" production techniques can make the silliest teen-pop lyric sound spectacular. As the talk-show host repeats the lyric over and over in rhythm, Vic and Doris clap their hands, stomp their feet, and add "shoop shoop" backup vocals, until they create a beautiful harmony.

Less amazing than it ought to be, though, is Darlene's hit song "He's Sure the Boy for Me." We are told repeatedly that it is based on Richard Wagner's "Liebestod," but it's impossible to discern this from the snippets of the song heard in the play. Only when the entire song plays as you're filing out of the theater do you hear the chorus, which is the same melody as the Liebestod. This is just shoppa-loppa-sloppy-sloppy. (Click here to listen to some of "The Boy for Me.")

Other than that, Les Waters' direction is pretty good and moves smoothly. This must be one of the few scripts where a revolving stage is not only practical, but thematically significant-- because, duh, it's a turntable. All the characters are spinning around on their own record, making their own music.

Tom Nelis gives the most real performance in the show, as Mr. Campani, a gay high-school music teacher who puts on a persona of fastidiousness and wit to conceal how unfulfilled his life is. Michael Crane is funny as the scrappy, nervy, grandiose music producer Vic, but also convinces in his single-scene role as a high-school bad boy. De'Adre Aziza has a sunny voice and smile, but was a little too tall and self-possessed to be a convincing 16-year-old schoolgirl. As the 16-year-old Young Man, Tobias Segal can be affecting, but the performance feels forced. (And now, after this character and Garrett in 100 Saints You Should Know, I feel like I've seen more than enough sexually confused teenagers for one season at Playwrights Horizons.) I liked the idea of having Mad King Ludwig played by a young woman, like a "pants role" in an opera (even if Wagner's operas don't employ this device). Laura Heisler captured the king's awkward, ardent love of music, but not always the full extent of his madness. And David Chandler doesn't have quite enough to do in his role as Richard Wagner.

This show is based on the Liebestod, the love-death, and in its best moments, you feel the love, in the human relationships or in the music. But you rarely feel the other side, the dark undercurrent that would make this a "cautionary valentine" instead of just a love story. Even when King Ludwig drowns, prompted, some say, by the emotional tug of Wagner's music, the moment is not given its full weight. Mr. Campani says, half-jokingly, that great works of art, like Wagner's operas, provoke literally visceral reactions--they affect your emotions so much that you have to run out of the theater and throw up. But Doris to Darlene is not likely to provoke even a single case of heartburn.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Whoa-oh-oh-oh, Da Doo Ron Ron

On Saturday I'll be in NYC again to see Doris to Darlene at Playwrights Horizons (and maybe do some Christmas shopping). I'm excited: not only is playwright Jordan Harrison a great guy and a talented writer, but the subject of this play sounds right up my alley. It interweaves 3 stories: Richard Wagner writing Tristan and Isolde, a 1960s girl-group singer's career, and a contemporary gay man's coming of age. Y'all know that I'm in an opera phase right now (though I'm no Wagnerian) but it might surprise you that I absolutely love girl-group pop!

Probably this has something to do with playing a doo-wop girl in Little Shop of Horrors in high school and getting to sing Ashman & Menken's pastiche songs. Really, it's a great score; the choice to use girl-group music is just so perfect for the show's humor and its 1950s/1960s setting. And it parodies its sources just enough, never too much. In the opening number, we sang "Shing-a-ling, what a creepy thing to be happening. Look out! Look out! Look out! Look out!" Only a few years later did I realize that that parodied the Shangri-Las' shouts in "Leader of the Pack."

This kind of music has also been heard on Broadway in Hairspray and Dreamgirls. Hairspray's "Mama I'm a Big Girl Now," with its three girls singing harmony and I-vi-iv-V chord structure, perfectly evokes the girl-group sound. It's one of my favorite songs in the score. However, I did not think that any of The Dreams' hit songs in Dreamgirls were as catchy or brilliant as the real deal from the Supremes. (More Dreamgirls carping here.)

Girl-group songs are a lot of fun, obviously, but their sweetness and innocence and adolescent heartbreak can also be quite affecting. When I went through my first quasi-relationship/quasi-breakup (eh, it was complicated) one thing that helped was listening to "Where Did Our Love Go?" and "You Can't Hurry Love" on repeat. Sounds clichéd, I know...but better than listening to emo.

It's funny that these songs should be this powerful, because they're the very definition of commercial music--written not from the depths of an artist's soul, but by teams of songwriters hoping to score a big hit. Much of the time, white adults wrote songs for young urban black girls to sing, which is a little creepy/exploitative (especially when said white man was Phil Spector!). At Motown the songwriters as well as the singers were black, but if anything, the "hitmaking machine" mentality was even more in effect.

Some people may scorn girl-group music because it's so commercial, but there's a lot of distinguished girl-group aficionados, too. They include:

Amy Winehouse: Her Grammy-nominated album (congrats Amy!) is heavily based around the classic girl-group sound: "Back to Black" might be the greatest Phil Spector song that Phil Spector never produced. But her voice gives it a modern twist: paradoxically, she's both more tough and more vulnerable than the typical poppy girl-group singer (the Shangri-Las excepted).

The Pipettes: A trio from the UK who is also contributing to the girl-group revival. Pretty, peppy, and polka-dotted, "Pull Shapes" ought to cheer you up if you just watched that funerary "Back to Black" video...

Martin Scorsese: Ever since seeing Goodfellas last summer I can't listen to "And Then He Kissed Me" without thinking of how it underscores the astounding tracking shot where Henry and Karen make their way into the Copacabana Club through the kitchen. Just ecstatically good filmmaking and music.

Tom Stoppard: His quasi-autobiographical character Henry, in The Real Thing, knows he "should" love difficult classical music, but really only likes the '60s pop hits from his youth. In one scene, he is trying to choose eight songs that are personally significant to him for the BBC radio show Desert Island Discs--but, ashamed of his musical tastes, is hunting for some more obscure tracks than the ones he usually listens to:
HENRY: I'm supposed to be one of your intellectual playwrights. I'm going to look like a total prick, aren't I, announcing that while I was telling Jean-Paul Sartre and the post-war French existentialists where they had got it wrong, I was spending the whole time listening to the Crystals singing "Da Doo Ron Ron."
That's one way of looking at it, Henry...or you could've been like Jordan Harrison, and put both your intellect and your love of girl-group music into one of your plays!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Gendarmes' Duet

When I was finding information about Jacques Offenbach yesterday, the most surprising thing I learned was that the United States Marine Corps Hymn ("From the halls of Montezuma...") takes its melody from a song in his operetta Geneviève de Brabant. It seemed like a big cognitive disconnect: this macho, All-American song really comes from a French comic opera? I'm sure certain members of our armed forces would be surprised to know that!

Moreover, I thought, knowing a little about Offenbach, it wouldn't surprise me if the original lyrics to his tune were satirical or anti-military, instead of straightforwardly patriotic. So today I did a little sleuthing: I located the score of Geneviève de Brabant in the music library here at Vassar. It was an old, old book, and on its flyleaf someone had written "Offert à ma soeur chérie, 9 avril 1868" (Given to my dear sister, April 9 1868). This was just a few months after the operetta had premiered! The frontispiece is a line drawing of two soldiers, because the hit song, which became the Marine Corps hymn, was the "Gendarmes' Duet." (Discoveries like these are why I love the Vassar library--and why I ought to take advantage of it while I still can!)

The Gendarmes' Duet comes in the second act. Its authentic French title is "Couplets des deux hommes d'arms" (Song of two men-at-arms). The characters are Grabuge, a sergeant, sung by a "comic baritone," and Pitou, a "simple gunner," sung by a "comic tenor." Here are the French lyrics, and then my translation.
G: Protéger le repos des villes
P: Courir sus aux mauvais garçons
G: Ne parler qu'à des imbéciles
P: En voir de toutes les façons
G: Un peu de calme après vous charme
P: C'est assez calme ici, sergent!

G: Ah, qu'il est beau...
P: Ah, qu'il est beau...
G: D'être homme d'arme...
P: D'être homme d'arme
Mais que c'est un sort exigeant!
G: Ah, qu'il est beau...
P: Ah, qu'il est beau...
G & P: D'être homme d'arme!
Mais c'est un sort exigeant!

G: Ne pas jamais ôter ses cottes
P: C'est bien penible, en vérité
G: Dormir apres de longues trottes
P: Rêver, c'est la félicité
G: Sentir la violette de Parme
P: Vous me comblez, ô mon sergent!

G: Ah qu'il est beau... (etc)
G: To keep the peace in towns
P: To run after naughty boys
G: To speak only to imbeciles
P: To see them in every way
G: A bit of calm afterwards is charming
P: It's pretty calm here, sergeant!

G: Oh, it's so nice...
P: Oh, it's so nice...
G: To be a man-at-arms...
P: To be a man-at-arms...
But it's a demanding life!
G: Oh, it's so nice...
P: Oh, it's so nice...
G: To be a man-at arms
G & P: To be a man-at-arms
But it's a demanding life!

G: Never to risk your neck
P: That's quite painful, in truth
G: To sleep after a long march
P: To dream, that's happiness
G: To smell Parma violets
P: You overwhelm me, oh my sergeant!

G: Oh, it's so nice... (etc.)
So, as I thought... definitely satirical. I forgot to mention that there's a note on the music that Pitou should sing in "voix de tête," which means "head voice" if he's meant to sing falsetto, that just makes it even funnier. And more satiric. And less the image that the Marines want to portray. The men-at-arms here are lazy, have nothing to do, are self-satisfied and smug. And there's more than a hint of effeminacy/homoeroticism in the last lines, where Grabuge dreams of smelling Parma violets and Pitou replies ecstatically "You overwhelm me!"

I mean no disrespect to our armed forces by undertaking this investigation, but I'm the kind of person who tends to be skeptical about big ideas like God or America or The Army. So when I read a Marine writing that "The Marine Corps is Valhalla for Warriors. U.S. Marines need no song. They have a hymn" and "When you have attained absolute perfection, there is no need for further modification" (reference), my first instinct is to cut him down a little. To tell him that the Marine Hymn was not created by God, but by a French-German-Jewish composer for a pleasant little operetta--and it's meant to satirize military music. I get the same way whenever I hear people rhapsodize about the "beauty" of "The Star-Spangled Banner." "It began as a drinking song!" I want to shout at them--which explains why it is so damn hard to sing, as well as the rather wheezing melody. Just because I love my country doesn't mean I have to thrill to every one of its patriotic symbols.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Offenbach in the offing

Late last fall, I was inspired to write a kind of fake operatic aria. I had been in the library watching a DVD of Eugene Onegin for my Opera course, and when I came outside I was so full of the beauty of Tchaikovsky's melodies and the crisp-crystalline night that I had to sing about it. Because arias ought to be in a foreign language, I began composing in French. I wanted some introductory lines about the cold night, but the first part of the song that came to me was a big, swooping, romantic chorus:
Mais j'ai un coeur amoureux
Qui brûle comme le feu!
Et la brise froide
Touche ma peau
Mais moi, j'ai chaud!

(But I have a loving heart
That burns like fire!
And the cold breeze
Touches my skin
But I'm warm!)
The lines preceding this section did not come as easily, either in their words or their music. But eventually I came up with this, set to a gently rocking melody that contrasted with the grander music I had already written:
La terre est sous une couche de givre
La nuit tombe si tôt
Aucune feuille ne peut plus vivre
Les branches rassemblent aux os

(The earth is beneath a layer of frost
Night falls so soon
No leaf can live any longer
The branches look like bones)
Soon after, though, I discovered a Plagiarism Mystery! I went to see a play and during one of the scene changes they played an aria whose tune sounded very similar to my "La terre est sous une couche" tune. Moreover, I felt like I'd heard the song before--that it was very famous and I'd subconsciously recalled it while writing my own song. But I couldn't really go up to the director afterwards and say "What aria was that?" I figured, if it was so famous, I'd eventually discover what it was. And indeed, I heard it on TV or in a movie another time over the past year; but I couldn't make out any of the lyrics or find other clues.

Last night, though, I finally figured out the answer. I'd ripped off the "Barcarolle" from The Tales of Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach!

Hei-Kyung Hong and Jennifer Larmore singing the "Barcarolle." The first part, from where the mezzo starts singing to when the soprano joins in, is virtually identical to my song. Fortunately they differ after that!

I'm pretty embarrassed now, since it's a very well-known piece of music. But it's also beautiful, and it adds evidence to my new theory that Offenbach is a better composer than anyone ever gives him credit for. He had a great skill for writing catchy melodies that also perfectly suit the mood and the text. For instance, the Barcarolle is about a "belle nuit, o nuit d'amour" (beautiful night of love), and so is the song that I wrote. The music sounds like nighttime--I can't explain it any other way--it simply cries to be set to lyrics about nighttime and love, not about daytime.

Since discovering Natalie Dessay's rendition(s) of "Les oiseaux dans la charmille" I've had the song stuck in my head frequently, despite not being able to sing it at all. Dessay also does a hilarious version of the "Fly Duet" from Orpheus in the Underworld, with her real-life husband, Laurent Naouri (he plays Jupiter, transforming himself into a fly to woo Eurydice).

Then there's the famous Can-Can from the same operetta, whose actual title is "Infernal Gallop." Doesn't it just sound like an infernal gallop, especially when all the brass instruments come in? Doesn't "Les oiseaux" sound just like a mechanical doll, and the "Fly Duet" just like a fly? Since Offenbach wrote comic operas, his librettists gave him all these outrageous situations to work with--and he rose to the occasion splendidly. So splendidly that I ripped him off! (the sincerest form of flattery?)

Sunday, December 2, 2007

The snows of Advent

A quote, and an observation: This weekend I read John Cheever's novel Bullet Park for English class. Its protagonist, Eliot Nailles, is introduced as he sits in church thinking about how "his sense of the church calendar was much more closely associated with the weather than with the revelations and strictures in Holy Gospel":
Saint Paul meant blizzards. Saint Matthias meant a thaw. For the marriage at Cana and the cleansing of the leper the oil furnace would still be running although the vents in the stained-glass windows were sometimes open to the raw spring air. [...] Jesus departs from the coast of Tyre and Sidon as the skiing ends. For the crucifixion a bobsled stands stranded in a flowerbed, its painter coiled among the early violets. The trout streams open for the resurrection. The crimson cloths at Pentecost and the miracle of the tongues meant swimming. St. James and Revelations fell on the first warm days of summer when you could smell the climbing roses by the window and when an occasional stray bee would buzz into the house of God and buzz out again. Trinity carried one into summer, the dog days and the drought, and the parable of the Samaritan was spoken as the season changed and the gentle sounds of the night garden turned as harsh as hardware. The flesh lusteth against the spirit to the smoke of leaf fires as did the raising of the dead. Then one was back again with Saint Andrew and the snows of Advent.
So I think Mr. Cheever would be happy to know that his analysis of Hudson Valley weather as it corresponds to the liturgical calendar was spot-on today. It is the first Sunday of Advent and the first snow fell last night.

This is what the Vassar campus (the library, the cathedral of knowledge) looked like at about noon today.

Happy holidays, everybody!