Monday, October 27, 2008

Barbary Lane to the Great White Way

By the way, I read recently that Tales of the City is being adapted into a Broadway musical, and while I'm skeptical of many of the musical adaptations I hear about, I actually think that this one has a lot of potential.

For one thing, Tales of the City is a heavily dialogue-based book, and is mostly told as a series of short, two-character scenes. So it's not like Maupin spends pages and pages describing his characters' psychology in ways that would be hard to dramatize. And the book features a wide variety of characters who combine in surprising ways.

For another, the librettist, Jeff Whitty, is best known for his libretto to Avenue Q--another musical about a disparate bunch of characters who live in an apartment building with an eccentric proprietor.

Indeed, the story seems to fit right into the musical-comedy tradition. It could begin with Mary Ann arriving in town and singing a wide-eyed-girl-in-the-city, Thoroughly Modern Millie-style opening number... or maybe the opening song ought to be more of an ensemble piece, introducing all of the characters as they go about their day at 28 Barbary Lane. (That would be a good song title, too--"Lane" rhymes with a lot of things.)

And one of the pivotal scenes has Michael participating in a jockey shorts dance contest--can we say Big Production Number?

The music and lyrics are being written by Jake Shears of the band Scissor Sisters, which I am not familiar with, but is evidently known for a "glam-rock disco sound"--a good fit for the 1970s setting, though disco music tends to be rather slick and shallow and I prefer my theater songs to delve deeper into the characters' feelings...

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Serialized Seventies S.F.

Having got the lay of the land in San Francisco, I felt ready to tackle perhaps the most famous literature ever to come out of these here hills: Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City. Well, "tackle" is the wrong word for this breezy and loving tribute to my new town. I loved reading it on my morning commute because it made me think of all the commuters who first read Tales of the City when it was a newspaper serial; also because the short chapters make it easy to get to a good stopping place.

However, I'm hesitant to call it the ultimate San Francisco book, at least for people of my generation, because it seems so 1970s. Maupin's attention to sociological details--what his characters wear, eat, believe, do for fun--makes it a great portrait of life in San Francisco then, but I don't know if it has much to do with what I'm experiencing now. It's hard to go back to a time pre-AIDS, pre-Harvey Milk's assassination, and less than 10 years removed from the Summer of Love.

Though I loved reading Tales of the City on the bus, I often wished I had Wikipedia beside me to look up the more obscure pop culture references. Because of my ignorance of '70s trends, I sometimes wasn't even sure what I was supposed to think of the characters. For instance, Mary Ann always asks her guests if they would like a creme de menthe. Now, I don't know any young women who drink creme de menthe these days, but was it popular in the '70s? If it was, then we're supposed to think of Mary Ann as mainstream or trendy. But if it was just as uncommon as it is today, then we're supposed to think of her as quirky or weird. Which is it?

Or, Maupin mocks '70s fads and the people who slavishly follow them, like Mary Ann's friend Connie with her "macrame plant hangers, monkey pod salad sets and Pet Rock." But to me, Mary Ann's wicker sofa and Michael's Est seminars are just as painfully 1970s as Connie's macrame--yet those characters are meant to be sympathetic, not satirical.

I do like the way Maupin emphasizes San Francisco's oddly small-town feel--maybe if you've never lived here you'd think that the coincidences in the novel are melodramatic, but even in my short time here I've met friends-of-friends in unexpected places, that kind of thing. Plus, the interconnectedness of the Tales of the City characters allows Maupin to pack in observations about people from all different backgrounds and classes, which is one of the book's strengths.

Perhaps what I most enjoyed about Tales of the City is that it's a modern novel that was originally published as a serial. I think the only other serialized novels I've read are by Charles Dickens, whose chapters are much longer and whose structures seem more carefully planned out--thus much closer to a conventionally written novel. There is no doubt in my mind that when Dickens began A Tale of Two Cities with "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," he knew he'd end it with "'It is a far far better thing." Whereas, even halfway through Tales of the City, I had no idea where it was going, other than presenting a collection of vignettes in the lives of some memorable characters. (Ha! Do you know it only just occurred to me that the title Tales of the City is a play on Dickens' novel?)

But because of its short chapters, (initially) loose structure, and Maupin's afterword where he admits that much of what he writes about was taken from what he observed in his daily life, Tales of the City makes writing a novel look easy. You think to yourself, "I could do this--write one three-page scene a day and have a novel in four months--six at most." You start imagining how you could use the colorful personalities you've met as characters in your stories--not writing an autobiographical account of your time in San Francisco, but recombining events from your own experience and those of your friends and acquaintances. You redouble your vow to journal about everything you see in the hopes of using it later.

So, while I can't say that reading Tales of the City has taught me anything practical about life in San Francisco (because it is 30+ years out of date), it has definitely caused me to look at the city in a new way.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Joszef the Plumber

When I first heard the phrase "Joe the Plumber," I was at a North Beach comedy club watching the final presidential debate and sipping a panaché.* If I'd been even slightly more drunk, I wouldn't have believed my ears when the debate turned into all Joe-the-Plumber all the time: it was like both candidates had turned into parodies of themselves, bending over backwards to prove that they could appeal to "the common man." (Part of the reason for this is that I missed the very beginning of the debate and assumed that "Joe the Plumber" was a metaphor like "Joe Sixpack" or "John Q Public" rather than an actual guy that Obama had met.)

The resultant Joe-the-Plumber mania reminded me, as it did Roger Cohen, of the hysteria a few years ago in France over the "Polish plumber." Basically, French people feared that strengthening the European Union would make it easy for residents of poorer Eastern European nations to move to the West--thus the dreaded "Polish Plumber" would take away jobs from hardworking French plumbers.

Cohen's column left out the best part, however: the Polish tourism board heard about what was happening in France and prepared an ad featuring a Fabio-like male model dressed in a plumber's uniform, with the slogan "I'm staying in Poland... Come and visit."

Years later, it still makes me giggle every time I look at it.

*Panaché = A French drink, half lager beer, half lemonade. Yes, I know this makes me a San Francisco elitist.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Bleedin' Frida

One of my favorite guilty-pleasure pop songs of recent vintage is Leona Lewis' "Bleeding Love." It always amuses me when a song with such morbid and disturbing lyrics becomes a mainstream hit... and I'm not trying to imply that that's a bad thing, since I love over-the-top music (opera, Broadway, girl-group melodrama, The Decemberists).

So, well, maybe I have more of a taste for the macabre than the average person does, but I am very disappointed in the two music videos Lewis taped for "Bleeding Love"--they're so tame! Not a splash of blood anywhere to be found! In the UK version, Lewis writhes around in a jeweled gown, her sultry eyes an incongruous fit with her sobbing vocals; in the US version, her boyfriend leaves her and she's sad, but it doesn't come near the crazy, obsessive, bleeding love described in the lyrics.

Personally, after seeing the Frida Kahlo exhibit last month, I think the music video should have gone for a Kahlo-inspired aesthetic:

"My heart's crippled by the vein that I keep on closing / You cut me open / And I keep bleeding / I keep, keep bleeding love" indeed.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Degrees of Separation, Memoirists Edition

As the perspicacious Mead pointed out in a comment to my Oh the Glory of It All review, it's entirely appropriate that I have moved on to read Tales of the City, which contains lightly fictionalized versions of some of the people in Wilsey's memoir. (Wilsey's mom, Pat Montandon, becomes Armistead Maupin's character "Prue Giroux," a dilettantish woman who holds "salons" in her Russian Hill penthouse.)

I'd noticed this, and also another connection, which I think is even stranger--linking the three memoirs I have read so far this year: Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, and Oh the Glory of It All by Sean Wilsey.

I knew the latter two authors were connected--they are friends and colleagues at McSweeney's--but you can imagine my surprise when I got four pages into Wilsey's book and came across Jessica Mitford's name. Turns out that she was a frequent guest at Pat Montandon's salons! Wilsey, who was just a boy at the time, describes Mitford as "an old British woman with huge round glasses who proclaimed 'When I die I've given instructions that I want to be buried like this,' and then pulled one corner of her mouth up and dragged the other one down and eyed the other guests (the mayor, a plastic surgeon, Agnes Moorehead, Shirley Temple). 'I want to make sure you all check on it. That's the way I want to look.'"

The "six degrees of separation" theory has been largely discredited but this is enough to make you believe in it again, huh? And since I met Dave Eggers at a book signing once, that puts me somewhere in this web too. Is this the "lattice" that he writes about in his memoir? Now when I walk through San Francisco I feel myself in the footsteps of all these real and even fictional characters who have convened here in combinations that might happen nowhere else...

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Welcome to Corporate America

So, as you may have guessed from the decrease in my blog postings lately, I have found a job and started work! And in this economy, that's nothing to sneeze at.

I won't be writing much about the details of my work life, since that's not what this blog is about. But, suffice it to say that I'm working in the financial district; that I feel quite firmly a part of the "business" world, which is new to me; that my company seems relatively shielded from the crisis in the financial markets; and that there is a 99% chance you have never heard of who we are or even what we do. (Ha, have I piqued your curiosity now?)

This is going to make a good story to tell my (potential future) children, though: "The week Mommy started her first full-time job, the stock market plunged 20%!"

Yes, I buck the trends. Everyone else in my generation moves to Portland because it's the cool new city; I moved away from Portland and went to San Francisco, which was the cool city for my parents' generation. To compete in the global economy, people are learning Spanish or Mandarin; I majored in French. We're in the worst economic straits since the great depression; I manage to get hired, working in business, no less!

As I said, I have reason to believe that my company is not in any immediate danger... however, it was not too encouraging to go into work my first day and see, on the whiteboard, a diagram of the bank failures and mergers that have taken place this year:

Left to right: Citi buys Wachovia; J. P. Morgan takes over WaMu and Bear Stearns; Bank of America takes over Merrill Lynch and Countrywide Financial; HSBC takes over Household International (happened several years ago, actually) and Wells Fargo and US Bank sit calmly off to the side...for the time being. Click photo to enlarge.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Glorious San Francisco!

Ding ding ding, I think I may have found a winner in my quest for the Ultimate San Francisco Book (though take this with a grain of salt, because I am halfway through Tales of the City right now and of course that is a very strong contender). It's Sean Wilsey's Oh the Glory of It All, his leave-no-stone-unturned memoir of growing up as the son of some of San Francisco's most famous figures in the 1970s and 1980s. When he was nine, his father, dairy-products millionaire Al Wilsey, divorced his mother, socialite Pat Montandon--then immediately married her best friend, Dede Traina. Sean, a rather shy and sensitive boy, grew up in the shadow of these three outsize personalities, turned delinquent as a teenager--but got himself straightened out, and matured into an impressive, engaging writer.

This is dishy stuff, so I felt mildly scandalous toting my paperback around town, reading it on a bench in Alta Plaza Park or while waiting for the curtain to rise at the opera house. See, Dede Wilsey lives across from Alta Plaza Park and is one of the San Francisco Opera's most generous patrons, so there was the subversive thrill of thinking I could possibly run into her, and she'd see what I was reading, and, I don't know, snatch the book out of my hands and tell me that it was all lies from cover to cover, or just stare daggers at me and then mutter "Plebeians" under her breath.

Because Oh the Glory of It All leaves you in no doubt that Dede Wilsey would do that kind of thing. "How can I explain Dede? She's my evil stepmother," writes Sean. In a book full of manipulative and self-absorbed people, Dede beats them all. You know how in an old-fashioned melodrama, the villain comes onstage and kicks a dog in order to prove that he is a Bad Man? Well, Wilsey implies that Dede poisoned her pet dog in order to divert attention from her ex-husband's wedding to Danielle Steel! And that's just the beginning.

The book is filled with these kind of audacious stories--and Wilsey describes them in such unsparing detail that they are funny as well as shocking. He doesn't hesitate to show himself in an unflattering light and milk that for humor, either; I nearly went into hysterics on the bus when I got to the part where Wilsey reveals that his favorite song when he was 12 years old was a schlocky pseudo-Broadway advertising jingle.

Like Dave Eggers, Wilsey is a McSweeney's-an, and they both write in a similar style (hip, loquacious memoirs) but the appeal of Oh the Glory of It All is fundamentally different than that of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Before his parents' sudden deaths, Eggers did not lead a particularly remarkable life; thus the reader easily thinks Hey, that could be me! Indeed, Eggers openly adopts an Everyman persona, wishing to be the conduit for the hopes and fears and struggles of his generation. Wilsey, however, was born into incredible circumstances, wishing he could live the simple Everyman life, but finding that hard to achieve. He frames the book as a story of how he carved out his own identity and made peace with the past, rather than a story of his generation's angst. The gossipy, Schadenfreude aspects of his memoir also appeal to we who wonder what it would be like to live among millionaires or attend a ritzy boarding school (oh come on, don't we all?). I also found Wilsey less guilt-ridden and self-conscious than Eggers, more attuned to the quirks of the people around him and not only to his own emotions.

One of the highlights of the book is a trip 12-year-old Sean takes to the USSR with "Children as Teachers of Peace," his mother's charity, and later he attends far-flung boarding schools in New England and Italy, but that doesn't stop this from being a left-my-heart-in-San-Francisco story. Wilsey is in love with the topography of this town, fascinated by historical events such as the 1906 quake, and takes the reader into little-known corners of the city, both high and low. He's equally adept writing about the opening of the opera as he is describing how it feels to skateboard down Market Street. If Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City is about San Francisco as a haven for people who never fit in in other parts of America ("Nobody is from San Francisco," Maupin writes), Oh the Glory of It All refutes that--San Francisco does have native citizens and a culture distinct from the waves of hippies and beatniks and gay people and computer nerds that have settled here. And Wilsey is the perfect introduction to it. If any of my friends ever move out here, I know what I'll be buying them a copy of...

Photo of Sean Wilsey by Ting-li Wang, The New York Times.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

In Bruges: "Die Tote Stadt"

As a budding opera lover, I looked upon attending Die Tote Stadt as a kind of test: it's the most obscure, the most modern, and the most "for connoisseurs" opera that I've yet seen. And you know what? I thought it was terrific. Rather than representing the limits of what I can withstand from an opera, it could just be my gateway drug to more forbidding works and less traditional stagings. The opera's two Big Tunes that I heard at the Opera in the Park concert, "Gluck das mir verblieb" and "Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen," are lush and romantic and therefore a gateway into Die Tote Stadt itself; the rest of the score bridges the romantic and the modern. Indeed, because the Big Tunes are initially presented as songs-within-the-opera, it is almost as though composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold is acknowledging that melodic outpourings are somehow old-fashioned and sentimental--even as he can't resist them.

Die Tote Stadt premiered in 1920, and it begins as a 1920s realist drama; that is, with a lot of unsubtly delivered exposition. The main character of the opera is Paul, a man who has retreated from the world following the death of his beloved wife Marie, and we learn this because his housekeeper explains everything to an old friend who has come to visit. It's a creaky device, but Korngold's music is so responsive to the text, so good at creating mood and delineating personality, that I didn't mind it much. The plot gets started when Marietta--a young dancer who bears a remarkable resemblance to the dead Marie--arrives, accompanied by some of the most splendid, crescendoing music I've ever heard. In her subsequent scene, Korngold provides a wonderful portrait-in-music of a vivacious flirt; meanwhile, Paul pours out his romantic longings. The SFO production made clear that for Marietta, "Glück das mir verblieb" is a sentimental old song that she performs in order to attract men; whereas for Paul, it is a profound message from his dead wife.

Indeed, at the end of Act One, Marie's ghost appears to Paul in a dream, and the opera shifts away from realism and into fantasy and symbolism. I could tell the audience started to get a little antsy at this point, because the ghost scene is much more static than the lively character interactions that preceded it. (It didn't help that this production combined Act One and Act Two, and that the seats in the opera house are not very comfortable.)

Still, eventually, you have to give into the dream logic, and the SFO production aided this with some astounding visuals. The back wall of Paul's living room dissolved (it was a scrim) to reveal a second, identical room behind it, with Marie's ghost. Marietta's theater troupe was done up in Fellini-esque commedia costumes and makeup. There was not one, but two, weird religious processions through the streets of Bruges (where Die Tote Stadt takes place--Paul has moved to "the dead city" of Bruges in order to wallow in his nostalgia). And there were many cool effects having to do with manipulating a John Singer Sargent portrait that represented Paul's dead wife.

The production (directed by Willy Decker, originally seen at Salzburg) was innovative without being schlocky, though there were a few choices I disagreed with: above all, having singer Emily Magee (Marietta) wear only her wig cap for a large portion of the opera. It was very distracting when she had to sing lines like "Isn't my hair lovely?" and also because all I could think of was "Ionesco would be pleased--it's a Bald Soprano!" And at another point during the dream sequence, some little houses spun around the stage to represent Paul's disorientation, but they looked too much like Dorothy's Wizard of Oz house spinning in the tornado--and if the production really wanted to evoke Bruges, the houses should have had step-gabled roofs. Also, along with Out West Arts, I have to wonder if the production would be more powerful if the lines between reality and nightmare were less clearly marked--if we were disoriented along with Paul, rather than realizing "it was all a dream" long before he becomes aware of it.

The score of Die Tote Stadt, as I mentioned, is extremely lush and colorful, with a huge orchestra that sometimes shimmers delicately and sometimes blares out climaxes. I know next to nothing about conducting, but this is the first time an opera's orchestra has impressed me as much as the singers have--kudos to Maestro Donald Runnicles.

As for the performers, Torsten Kerl, singing the difficult role of Paul (he didn't leave the stage once!) had a metallic, ringing tenor but was not the strongest actor--he looked like he was repeating the gestures the director had told him to do rather than feeling them organically. Emily Magee had a very powerful voice that effortlessly hit the high notes (an important part of Korngold's score, so full of soaring moments) and gave an energetic, physically engaged performance of the dancer Marietta. And Lucas Meachem sung "Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen" in a nice baritone voice and acted well in the role of Paul's pragmatic friend Frank.

Still, though the lead roles of Die Tote Stadt are very challenging, the opera feels less like a showcase for star performers, and more like a chance for singers, conductor, and production team to all collaborate in turning this odd story and complex score into a unified work of art. And in this case, the San Francisco Opera made it look dead easy.

If you're curious about the music and production, here is a video preview.

All photos by Terrence McCarthy, San Francisco Opera.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

And a few hours post-debate...

Well, the "make someone look bad by quoting 'em directly" strategy is going to be somewhat harder to use after Sarah Palin's generally poised and confident performance in the debate. Did Tina Fey actually help the Republican ticket by helping to lower expectations for tonight? I and my friends with whom I watched the debate had to admit we were pleasantly surprised by Palin--we'd figured she'd be much more of a deer in the headlights. Yes, she evaded a lot of the questions, but at least she's mastered the political art of gracefully transitioning from the moderator's question to what she really wants to talk about.

That said, I don't think she delivered a knockout performance, and when Joe Biden got choked up talking about the loss of his first wife and child, I thought "That's it, he just won the debate right there." Unlike Palin smilingly proclaiming that she is a "hockey mom," this moment didn't feel like a cheap appeal to American parents, and unlike John McCain describing his years in Vietnam for the hundredth time (though it's still a moving story, don't get me wrong), it was more powerful because I think a lot of people weren't aware of this about Biden. It humanized him--he's not just "that talkative and gaffe-prone Senator" anymore.

I also thought that Biden made the right decision to repeat "McCain" and "Bush" and avoid personally attacking Palin; that way, no one can accuse him of being unfair to or contemptuous of her. (He even avoided calling her "Sarah," which might have been seen as patronizing, though she happily called him "Joe." Funny, how these double-standards work...)

One thing I'm worried about, though, is Biden's answer to the final question of the debate: when Ifill asked if he'd ever changed his position on something during his time in office, he responded that he once thought that judicial appointees deserved to be approved as long as they were intelligent and had a clean record, but he then realized that he also needed to take their judicial philosophies into consideration and vote against judges whose ideology he disagreed with. I admire Biden for his honesty, but I worry that the Republicans will slam him because he admitted in front of millions of viewers that he supports "activist judges."

Well, we'll see how it plays out. 32 days till the election! (and register to vote if you haven't done so already--many states have a registration deadline of Oct. 4!)

1 Hour Before the VP Debate...

Unlike Sarah Palin, my mother does not have a degree in journalism. The only time Mom formally studied journalism was in high school, where she took a short elective course in it.

The best piece of advice that Mom remembers from her journalism course, and which she has passed down to me, is "If you want to make someone look bad, quote 'em directly." Don't clean up their grammar or graciously leave out the times they say "um" and "y'know." Let them dig their own hole.

And a comparison of this SNL sketch to a transcript of the real-life Palin's interview with Katie Couric, reveals that Tina Fey also knows that the most damning thing you can do is to just quote someone directly. Thank you Tina!