Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Feminist Defense of LA LA LAND

Mia (Emma Stone) strides ahead of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling).
La La Land is one of the most talked-about, most awarded, and most love-it-or-hate-it films of 2016. But in all the critical conversation, I feel like something’s been overlooked: if it wins Best Picture in six hours or so, it’ll be the first Best Picture winner in over a decade to feature a female protagonist.

Much of the La La Land criticism I’ve seen focuses on the male lead, a jazz pianist named Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), and his “out-of-touch,” “white-savior” attitude toward jazz music. Comparatively little attention has been devoted to the female lead, a struggling actress named Mia (Emma Stone). Often, when that happens, it's because the female character is no more than an accessory or a prize for the man—something that still happens depressingly often in prestigious Hollywood movies.

But I want to argue that La La Land is really Mia’s story, and that the movie subtly but persistently centers her perspective. Partly, this is because Stone acts circles around Gosling (IMO). Partly, this is because of my personal connection to the character of Mia: she is a woman in her mid-twenties who self-produces an original play and dates a jazz musician, which were also the defining events of my mid-twenties. But mostly, I think, it’s due to the inherent structure of the film.

Literally and figuratively, La La Land is Mia's story before it is Sebastian's. Her character, her life, her ambitions are introduced to us first. Moreover, her introductory sequence shows her as sympathetic and relatable: she gets coffee spilled on her, gives a thoughtful performance at an audition only to be ignored, goes out to a party with her pals, and gets caught in a jam when her car is towed and her phone dies. Sebastian's introductory scenes make him out to be a far less sympathetic character: his sister calls him out for his jazz-snob pretensions, and he gets fired from a gig as a restaurant pianist because he sees the job as beneath him and can't resist going into jazz improvisations when he was hired to play Christmas tunes. I don’t agree with the charge that La La Land takes an un-critical view of Sebastian; I think the film is well aware of his character flaws. It wants us to think that his attitude to jazz is kind of arrogant, while still being happy for him when he finds professional success.

As the film continues, Mia's backstory is fleshed out more than Sebastian's is. She's the character who gets to sing a climactic solo song, "Audition (The Ones Who Dream)," whose lyrics sum up the movie's message. And I read the fantasy sequence at the end as her fantasy, a trip through her thoughts. (It resembles an old movie musical because Mia loves old movies.) Significantly, Mia gets a surname, “Dolan,” while Sebastian only gets a nickname, “Seb.”

I’ve seen the criticism that Mia succeeds only because of Sebastian: he's the person who suggests that she write and produce a show, and who convinces her to go to the audition that makes her a star. But, while Seb bucks her up when she doubts herself, it’s false to say that her success is entirely due to his influence. Take it from one who knows: self-producing a play is a huge task that requires a lot of time, effort, and sacrifice. And the film doesn’t indicate that Seb gives Mia any practical help with her show, just occasional words of encouragement. Her own talents and ambitions are what allow her to complete the project.

Furthermore, La La Land shows Sebastian benefiting from Mia's advice, too. His longtime dream is to open up a jazz club called “Chicken on a Stick” on the site of a storied former jazz venue that is now a tapas bar. Mia tries to persuade him that “Chicken on a Stick” is a terrible name and that he should consider other locations, but Sebastian seems unmoved. At the end of the movie, though, we see that Sebastian has opened his club, it's in a different location, and it has the name that Mia suggested—“Seb's.” Sebastian's instincts were right when it came to Mia's career, but Mia's instincts were also right when it came to Sebastian's.

Sebastian and Mia look at the stars.
It’s even possible to read the middle of La La Land as a comment on the imbalance of emotional labor in heterosexual relationships. As Mia puts her one-woman show together and Sebastian goes on tour with a jazz-funk ensemble, their relationship becomes more distant and strained. To heal the breach, he suggests that she should join him for a leg of the tour. However, this implies a lack of respect for the work that she is making, which requires her to stay in Los Angeles. (She is self-producing a one-woman show that opens in two weeks and you expect her to fly off to freaking Idaho for you, Seb?) And, while Seb casually asks Mia to drop everything and go on tour with him, he isn't willing to drop out of a band photo shoot in order to see her show. It's not tit-for-tat; it's Sebastian asking Mia to make a sacrifice that he proves unwilling to make himself.

Indeed, La La Land captures the essential loneliness of being a jazzman’s girlfriend. The nights where he's up on stage playing music for swing dancers so you learn to swing dance, too, because otherwise you'd have nothing to do. The fear that he will always love his music more than you, that it will always come first. (My ex didn't like it if I phoned him before 10 PM because it might interrupt his practicing.) Seb thinks it’s disrespectful to talk over jazz music—my ex thought it was disrespectful if I read a book while he and his combo played jazz in a cocktail lounge.

The end of La La Land flashes forward to five years after Mia and Sebastian have gone their separate ways. Our overall impression is that Mia has moved on, while Sebastian hasn't. She has a husband, a baby, her face on billboards, and a room at the Chateau Marmont. Sebastian, it seems, is still single and living in the same apartment. But, when Mia unexpectedly encounters Sebastian at his jazz club, she allows herself to imagine the life they could have had together. Not only does this sequence allow us into Mia’s head in a way that we never are allowed inside Sebastian’s, but also, as this Vogue piece points out, it’s a fantasy of having it all. Mia imagines Sebastian accompanying her to her film shoot in Paris; she doesn’t imagine turning down a career opportunity in order to stay with him.

Admittedly, I wish La La Land gave us more information about what happened to Mia during those five years (and I wish Emma Stone did more to distinguish thirtysomething movie-star Mia from twentysomething struggling-actress Mia). What kinds of roles is Mia playing, how did she meet her husband, is she still writing? But that's because I came to love her character and therefore am hungry to know more about her. Her journey is longer than Seb's and takes her further. I don't feel particularly curious about Seb's life in those five years.

Decades of Hollywood movies have told women that love is the only thing worth having—a message that can be very damaging. Look at some other popular movie musicals that feature aspiring-actress protagonists. Funny Girl is the story of Fanny Brice’s abject, masochistic love for a no-good man. Moulin Rouge suggests that the upside of Satine’s tragic death is that it makes her boyfriend into a true artist. Never do we get the sense that La La Land’s Mia is just there to serve as her boyfriend's muse. And the overall message of the film is refreshingly modern and realistic: it says that love is wonderful and magical, but it’s not more important than your career. That the world needs dreamers, but you need to back up your dreams with hard work and patience.

I recognize that the feminism of La La Land isn't at all radical or intersectional: its female lead is young, white, straight, and beautiful. Nonetheless, I remain mystified as to why so many people are reading it as the story of a self-absorbed white-guy jazz pianist with a girlfriend who happens to be an actress. Why do people fail to recognize that Mia is the real protagonist, that her art matters as much as Sebastian’s does, and that his self-absorption is precisely why their relationship could never work long-term? Have we become so used to narratives that center the male perspective that we can't even recognize a female-centered story when it shows up before us, singing and dancing in Technicolor Cinerama?

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

E. Gorey's Book of Practical Cats

It's Edward Gorey's birthday! The delightfully macabre writer and illustrator would have been 92 years old today. As a small token of appreciation, I'm posting my review of the edition of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats that features Gorey's artwork.

The Rum Tum Tugger and his long-suffering owner. Illustration by Edward Gorey.
Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I saw the musical Cats on Broadway at the age of 5, but I’d never sat down and read the T.S. Eliot poems that inspired the musical and constitute most of its lyrics. If you can banish the Andrew Lloyd Webber melodies from your head, many of the poems still make for amusing reading. Eliot is able to capture both the mischievousness and the dignity of housecats. The poems about aged cats “Old Deuteronomy” and “Gus the Theater Cat” are touching, and the characterization of “Macavity” as a cat version of Professor Moriarty is great fun.

I’d be wary of giving these poems to a 21st-century child, though: there is some racism against “foreign” animals (Siamese and Persian cats, and Pekingese dogs), and there is only one lady cat who gets a poem devoted to her (the “Old Gumbie Cat,” Jennyanydots).

The reason I bought this edition was its charming Edward Gorey illustrations: Gorey was a famed cat-lover, so this is a perfect match of illustrator and subject. (I particularly like the exasperated expressions on the faces of the Rum Tum Tugger’s owners, and the illustration of Macavity in an opium-den-like environment eating Beluga caviar.) Wouldn’t it be nice if the set and costume design of Cats had drawn inspiration from Gorey’s elegant, whimsical style, rather than going for that tacky ‘80s look?

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Reading McCraney's Brother/Sister Plays

In honor of Black History Month and Tarell Alvin McCraney's Oscar nomination for the Moonlight screenplay, I decided to read his Brother/Sister Plays trilogy, which had been sitting on my shelf for a while. These plays made a big impression on me when I saw them in the Bay Area in Fall 2010, but I hadn't revisited them since then. (Click my "Tarell Alvin McCraney" tag to see my earlier posts about this trilogy.) Interesting that, in many cases, my opinions about these plays have remained the same, even though it's 6+ years later and I was reading the scripts instead of seeing them produced!

The Brother/Sister PlaysThe Brother/Sister Plays by Tarell Alvin McCraney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(4 stars for In the Red & Brown Water; 5 stars for The Brothers Size; 3 stars for Marcus.)

It’s not every day that a twentysomething playwright writes an ambitious trilogy that blends spoken stage directions, free-verse poetry, Yoruba mythology, and contemporary slang to tell the stories of an African-American community in the Louisiana bayou. But that’s Tarell Alvin McCraney’s achievement in his Brother/Sister Plays.

In the Red & Brown Water is our introduction to this world, and to McCraney’s inimitable voice. However, while the play’s style is unexpected and powerful, the story is kind of clichéd. Oya, the heroine, is torn between two men—the boring but reliable Ogun and the seductive but fickle Shango—and spends most of the second act despondent over her inability to get pregnant. Points to McCraney for trying to write a female-centered play, but I’m not sure he understands women as well as he understands men.

Ogun returns as one of the title characters of The Brothers Size, the trilogy’s centerpiece and masterwork. It is a tightly focused, 3-character drama with an ending that I find almost unbearably moving. The play delves deep into Ogun’s relationship with his younger brother Oshoosi, a charming fuck-up who recently got out of the penitentiary. Toward the end, the brothers lip-synch to a song—the script does not specify what song to use, but when I saw The Brothers Size at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre in 2010, the production used Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.” I can’t imagine a better song choice: this play is really all about the tenderness and vulnerability of black men, the love they have for one another, in a society that refuses to acknowledge that tenderness. (In this, The Brothers Size has some similarities with Moonlight, the acclaimed 2016 film that is based on a different McCraney play.)

Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet has a more lighthearted tone than the other two plays. It depicts the next generation of the community, centering on Marcus, a 16-year-old boy coming to terms with the fact that he is “sweet” (gay). While the play has many charming moments, I find it kind of imbalanced in terms of its structure. An important character shows up out of nowhere at the start of the second act, and the characters talk a lot about how a hurricane is about to hit, but the hurricane never arrives.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Genuinely Sexy Musical Theater Songs

A poll came out last week claiming that musical theater is the "least sexy" music genre. In response, I conducted a poll of my own, asking my Facebook friends to post their choices for genuinely sexy musical theater songs.

The discussion really took off—there were about 70 different songs named—and today, for Valentine's Day, I tweeted out a baker's dozen of my favorites. I tried to limit it to one song per composer (for variety's sake), though I broke that rule at the end.

Presenting the Valentine's Day 2017 Sexy Broadway Playlist.

1. "Play the Music For Me" from Jelly's Last Jam, introduced on Broadway by the great Tonya Pinkins.

2. Another Tonya Pinkins track: "Black is a Moocher" from Michael John LaChiusa's The Wild Party.

3. It's sexy, it's haunting, and it's based on Plato's Symposium. "The Origin of Love" from Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

4. Currently on Broadway and making Tolstoy sexy: Amber Gray singing "Charming" from Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.

5. You knew this was coming. "Say No to This" from Hamilton.

6. Opposites attract and bicker and harmonize really, really well. "Take Me or Leave Me," from Rent.

7. Lots of songs in A Little Night Music are sexy (and check out its original Broadway poster, with the naked lovers hidden in the tree!) but I went with the twisted love triangle of "Now/Later/Soon."

8. I think the ritardando on "I…on…ly… know when he" in "I Could Have Danced All Night" (from My Fair Lady) is sexy, and it really makes the song.

9. How did we get this far in a Sexy Broadway playlist without any Kander & Ebb? Remedying that with "When You're Good to Mama" from Chicago.

10. Phantom of the Opera fans, I see you and I've got you covered. Time to pass "The Point of No Return."

11. Finishing off with three tracks from the sexiest Golden Age Broadway composer, Cole Porter. Eartha Kitt with a sultry "My Heart Belongs to Daddy."

12. Ella Fitzgerald's classic "Begin the Beguine"—I am still disappointed that 21st-century adulthood involves so few orchestras playing, palms swaying, nights of tropical splendor, and this whole sophisticated brand of sexiness.

13. Porter at the height of his lush, darkly romantic mode: "So in Love" from Kiss Me Kate, as sung by Brian Stokes Mitchell (I was lucky enough to see this onstage as a young teen!).

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Why isn't FUN HOME sold out every night?

The cast of the touring production of Fun Home, at the Curran Theatre through Feb. 19
Fun Home is running at the Curran in San Francisco for one more week and it’s so good that I am angry that it isn’t sold out every night.

(Except I'm not really angry, because this means that if you haven’t gotten a ticket yet, you still can!)

It’s a cliché to say that Fun Home is a highly specific story about Alison Bechdel that also happens to feel universal—in fact, the Curran’s program, with a cover illustration by Bechdel herself, calls that out. (The cartoon features some people outside the theater, saying “That was exactly like MY family! But totally different…”) But it’s true: it will make you think about your family, and coming of age, and coming to terms with the unique issues that troubled your parents and form an unwanted part of your inheritance.

For me, I thought a lot about the grandfather I never knew, who, like Alison Bechdel’s dad, worked long hours at a funeral home (“fun home”). He was a stern taskmaster, and never got to see as much of the world as he would have liked, and died of a sudden heart attack while my dad was still a teenager. I want that whole side of my family to see this show!

In the show, Alison’s lesbian coming-of-age feels universal too, at least for those of us who were cerebral and physically awkward adolescents who experienced life mostly through books. When Alison learns the pleasures of having a physical body that can make love with another’s body, but can’t describe these new sensations in anything other than academic language (“I’m changing my major to sex with Joan!”) it is adorable and heartfelt and true.

Though only 100 minutes long, Fun Home offers so much to think about regarding families, and sexuality, and gender. Alison can come out of the closet while her father Bruce cannot; partly, this is because she was born after the sexual revolution but also, I think, because it’s more socially acceptable to be a lesbian than to be a gay man. But at the same time as Bruce conceals his sexuality, he clings to his male privilege like the archetypal mid-century patriarch (“He wants, he wants,” his wife and children sing) and polices young Alison’s gender expression.

And, as everyone says, Fun Home is a tearjerker; it had my eyes swimming on a couple of occasions. (I tend to well up rather than full-on sob at the theater, no matter how emotionally moved I am.) I do want to throttle the person whose cell phone went off during “Ring of Keys,” though.

Also, the renovated Curran is pulling out all the stops for their inaugural production. I appreciated the chance to get a free glass of rosé and meet the actors in the lobby after the show (something I’ve never seen happen at a national touring production). But even more than that, I appreciated that the Curran didn’t slap any bullshit “handling fees” or “theater restoration fees” on top of the advertised  price when I purchased my ticket. That's something that is, unfortunately, a rarity these days for big theaters that undergo renovation.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Script Reading Roundup: Douthit, Karam, Lucas

I'm trying to read more plays in 2017 and also post brief thoughts on what I've read. For my first script review roundup of the year: an obscure play by Lue Morgan Douthit, an acclaimed comedy by Stephen Karam, and two quite different plays by Craig Lucas.

Honor Bright: A Play in Two Acts by Lue Morgan Douthit
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Meet Edie Barrett Barnett. She has emotionally distant parents named Charles and Marian, and dutiful older siblings named Chip and Kate, and a loyal family cook/nanny named Sarah, and a boyfriend at Harvard Med named Jessie, and a sensible sidekick named Janet. She has a mischievous streak and a drinking problem and a desperate need to rebel against her family’s strict expectations.

In short, Edie is the epitome of a troubled WASP girl, but that means Honor Bright sometimes feels more like an anthropological study than a drama. The play is a series of vignettes from Edie’s high school and college years, as she tries to figure out how her life became a downward spiral. Edie (played by three different actresses) is a reasonably complex character, but everyone else in the play is a one-dimensional archetype. Maybe that’s because Edie filters the story through her own perspective and fails to recognize the full humanity of her friends and family, but it can feel like she’s stacking the deck. At the same time, the play’s tragedy is how the other characters fail to recognize Edie’s full humanity: unable to understand how alienated she feels, they dismiss her as a “moody” girl who just needs to “get over it.” WASP emotional repression cuts both ways.

The playwright, Lue Morgan Douthit, is best known these days as the longtime dramaturg and literary manager for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Honor Bright, her M.A. thesis play, was produced Off-Broadway in 1984.

Speech and DebateSpeech & Debate by Stephen Karam
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Speech & Debate is about three smart, alienated, awkward high school students in Salem, Oregon, brought together by a sex scandal involving their drama teacher. As a former teenage misfit from Oregon, I may be predisposed to love it. But I think lots of people will enjoy this funny, offbeat, clever script.

The three protagonists—frustrated theater-geek Diwata, dogged journalism-nerd Solomon, and cynical ex-Portlander Howie—are excellent roles for young actors. Stephen Karam expertly wrings humor from how teenagers can be confident and tech-savvy and smarter than adults give them credit for, while also completely unaware of their own vulnerabilities and follies.

Each of the play’s scenes is named and loosely modeled after a speech-and-debate event (Extemporaneous Commentary, Declamation, etc.), and in its 100 minutes, the play makes use of a remarkable range of communication techniques: instant messages, podcasting, interpretive dance, radio journalism, and more. Through this variety of media, the message comes through loud and clear: these kids are desperate to be heard.

Reckless - Acting EditionReckless by Craig Lucas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s an entire sub-genre of American drama in which, through forces beyond her control, a sweet but scattered woman gets thrown into increasingly bizarre situations involving an array of oddball characters. These plays tend to be fast-paced lampoons of television, psychiatry, the nuclear family, and all the other ways in which we try to pretend that everything is all right. And while your initial reaction such a play is likely to be “How wacky!”, by the end of it you may be saying, instead, “How sad!” Christopher Durang has written several plays like this; David Lindsay-Abaire’s Fuddy Meers is another example. And after reading Craig Lucas’ Reckless, from the mid-1980s, I’m willing to bet that it helped codify a lot of the elements of this sub-genre. It’s the story of a young wife and mother named Rachel who is forced to flee her house in bathrobe and slippers one Christmas Eve after her husband confesses he’s hired a hitman to kill her. From there, the play mounts a satirical assault on the institutions and customs of “normal” American life. No one’s who they say they are; psychiatrists are useless; bizarre violent crimes abound. And if Rachel makes a reckless decision or two along the way, it’s only because, as another character says, “life’s been reckless with [her].”

Small Tragedy by Craig Lucas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For most of its length, Small Tragedy is a sharply observed backstage comedy about 6 people in 1990s-era Boston trying to stage a small-scale production of Oedipus Rex. The characters are the usual suspects—the pompous director, the earnest young actor—plus a handsome and taciturn Bosnian refugee, whose presence spurs romantic intrigue as well as conversations about the relevance of Greek tragedy. The dense overlapping dialogue, frequent use of split scenes, and minimal stage directions pose a worthy challenge to directors, actors, readers, and theatergoers.

However, near the end of Act Two, there are some sudden and implausible plot twists, followed by a rushed ending. The mood of the play shifts from easygoing comedy to portentous drama. This all seems intended to illustrate how we (like Oedipus) are willfully oblivious to the true, tragic nature of things, and possibly even make us feel guilty for preferring the low-stakes humor of Act One. But this shift in tone, and this thematic point, seems like it'd be very hard to pull off in performance.