August 19, 2017

NYC DIARY

Last week I returned from 9 days in NYC and in a few days I’ll be going back for over a month. I’ve sublet an apartment on the Upper West Side and I’ll be filling in for Alex Bennett on Sirius Left, channel 127. More on that as it approaches. I hope I get to see a lot of you over the holidays but if I don’t be certain that you have my best wishes for a Merry Christmas…Kyle is an enthusiastic Harry Potter fan (he re-watched EVERY movie episode in chronological order when he was with me last summer!) so he was excited when I got tickets to see Daniel Radcliffe in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” on Broadway. After the curtain call Radcliffe and John Laraquette came back onstage to raise money for ‘Broadway Cares’, the yearly fundraiser for AIDS. The cast had autographed posters and playbills for sale but Radcliffe anxiously announced they were going to try something new that night. He had worn an electric blue bow tie throughout the performance, untied it from his neck and autographed it along with Laraquette. “Would anyone start bidding for it at $50?” Kyle looked at me pleading: “Come on! Its only $50!” Before I could even think about it the auction raced forward to $400. Kyle, I am NOT going to pay 400 bucks for a bow tie! Forget it…” Shortly, the bidding jumped to $1000…and there was a pause. Kyle stared back and forth between me and the stage. “Will anyone in audience go to 1100?” Radcliffe asked. There was another silence. “ONE MILLION DOLLARS!” shouted Kyle as my hand flew out to cover his mouth. A smattering of applause for this outrageous bid was overtaken by a wave of laughter as all heads turned to see us sitting on the aisle in the orchestra, my hand stifling Kyle from saying another word. When it faded a bit Daniel Radcliffe looked down at Kyle and said: “I think we’ll pass on the million dollar bid for the moment…” The bidding resumed and finished with a $5000 offer for the bow tie! I’m just grateful Kyle didn’t choose a more reasonable amount or I’d now own the most expensive neckwear on my tie rack!…I also saw ‘Seminar’ with Alan Rickman which was in previews. It was impressively acted (especially Lilly Rabe), wittily and cleverly written for the most part. The dramatic contrivance of evaluating an entire book from a minute’s perusal is too much to ask of an audience even with the suspension of disbelief and the play fell apart in the last scene; characters inexplicably reversed behavior, loose ends were tied in neat bows and arch dialogue melted into sentiment. But it was a fun evening and more fun to tell Kyle that after seeing Harry Potter a block away I saw Professor Severus Snape…I counted 8 different languages on my walk home from 45th Street to 55th Street. And two more I couldn’t identify! Is there any other city in the world where that would happen?…One night I was invited to a fundraiser for Primary Stages saluting past Pulitzer Prize winners in Drama. Marsha Norman (Night Mother), Frank Gilroy (The Subject Was Roses), Bruce Norris (Clybourne Park) and others were sitting at tables right next to ours. I met Wendy Wasserstein’s sister as we both signed in for the event. Her manner and speech patterns were so reminiscent of Wendy’s I choked up with emotion while I described how classmates loved and missed her sister. Edward Albee, who is in his eighties I’m sure, made a memorable speech from the stage. He’d received the Pulitzer three times (A Delicate Balance, Seascape, Three Tall Women) but informed the audience he thought he was missing a prize. In 1963 “Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolff’ was selected by the Prize Committee but the Trustees had found it ‘obscene or offensive…or something…If you look in your programs you will see there was no prize awarded for that year. So let me ask all of you here tonight: ‘Do you think I won three Pultizer Prizes?” After pausing for effect he sighed: “Or do you think I won four?” Supported by his cane, he shuffled back to his seat through the affirmation of resounding applause. As impressive as that was it wasn’t the highlight of the night for me! In 1977, when I was an actor at the Yale Rep, I used to eat alone, studying me script and memorizing lines over dinner. One night at the Howard Johnson’s over by the Long Wharf I spotted a guy at the next table poring over his script in a similar manner. “Sorry to bother you but are you working at the Long Wharf Theater?” I asked. He said he was and mentioned that he was a writer. I asked his name and he replied, “Harnick”. The way he pronounced it sounded funny to me so I quipped, “Harnick from the planet Ork? Like Mork?” (Yeah, this WAS the seventies…) No. He was Sheldon Harnick who had written “Fiddler on the Roof” and one of my favorite musicals “Fiorello”. As a kid I must have listened to the cast album of “Fiorello” a thousand times. I knew the lyrics to every song by heart and still do. Mr. Harnick was incredibly gracious (especially after my lame joke) and we talked throughout dinner getting very little script work done. Well, Sheldon Harnick, now eighty-seven was here this night. He’d won a Pulitzer for writing the lyrics to “Fiorello” and though he did have a complaint it wasn’t about NOT winning the Pulitzer for ‘Fiddler’. There was a short chorus sung in the show called ‘Home Again” celebrating the return of Laguardia and other doughboys to the US after WW I. Originally a much longer song and most of it was cut from the show before opening. The melody for his lyrics can still be heard in the overture. Well ‘Harnick’, for the first time performed the entire song. He was terrific. Robust, on key, inspiring. I sang along with the chorus. Thank you Mr. Harnick for once again making my night! And thanks to my good friend and former classmate Jeremy Smith for inviting me to this unforgettable evening…Things I learned picking up Kyle from school: 1. 75% of (white) boys these days have Justin Beiber haircuts. 2. ‘Mad’ is the new fad adjective, as in “OMG, I had me some mad detention today!” 3. Kids EXPLODE out of school with the energy of a bomb. Why do workers slink from the office enervated, completely drained? 4. Young girls hug each other constantly. I don’t remember girls doing this when I was a kid. They hug with the intensity family members show to newly released kidnap victims…I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and caught the latest exhibit on caricature and political cartoons: Infinite Jest
Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine

The 19th century cartoons of Cruikshank, Rowlandson and Daumier are amusing and historically interesting but there was little 19th century American work and almost no Nast. British Napoleonic cartoons are colorful and spitefully funny but I could have done with a little more Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and less Bonaparte. There were, however, a few 20th century cartoons from Oliphant, Herblock, Levine and others that were more powerfully artistic in original sketch form than they seem in newsprint. Inexplicably, most of these are some distance down the hallway leading to the main exhibition rooms so make sure not to miss them if you go: a frightening Nixon with V-shaped fingers rising from forboding black void, a frail Clinton rebuilding his image on a flimsy scaffold after Monica, an Eisenhower who is all elephantine ears. And there is an entire wall of Hirschfeld’s that are fun to decipher. The last cartoon in the exhibit is called ‘The Headache’ modeled after a 19th century George Cruickshank cartoon, this version has Obama bedeviled by little devils with pitchforks. Despite it’s deficiencies it is certainly worth seeing and I may return for the guided tour the museum is offering on December 15th…I saw ‘Tower Heist’ with Kyle, which despite my apprehension going in, was enjoyable and well done. I am not a Ben Stiller fan and Eddie Murphy seems so perfectly buff and pampered these days that I can’t even accept him playing any facsimile of an actual human being anymore, let alone one who is struggling and downtrodden, but Murphy is funny here. Yes, there is something disconcerting about multi-millionaire movie stars playing proletariat class warriors from Queens and yes director Brett Rattner seems to be a pig…but go, if you haven’t already. You’ll have a good time. Finally, I saw ‘Anonymous’ with an old friend and former Shakespearian castmate. Ugh. ‘Anonymous’ is awful and offensive in the worst way something can be awful and offensive: it was boring. The movie makers obviously see themselves as clever and daring but the film is puerile, like watching a High School kid sniggering at obscenities he’s scrawled across the cover of his Signet Macbeth. And about as entertaining. With Derek Jacobi(a complete waste. Olivier‘s Polaroid commercials were compelling in comparison.)and Vanessa Redgrave (who despite everything creates a vivid acting doodle of Elizabeth in her dotage), I was anxious to see it and had anxiety before seeing ‘Tower Heist’. Just goes to show ya; ‘Ya can’t tell a movie by its trailer.’ (Well, some of the time you can’t!)…See ya back in NYC.

THE 12 CENT VS THE $65 MILLION SPIDERMAN

I bought the very first SPIDERMAN comic book. In fact, I bought BOTH of them.

SPIDERMAN first appeared in AMAZING FANTASY comics and then got his own gig in March of 1963 with the premiere edition of THE AMAZING SPIDERMAN. I remember buying it, just as I remember buying the first FANTASTIC FOUR a year earlier. I was 1l years old and thought: “Wow! I’m buying the first edition just like some kid bought the first Superman in 1938! I’ll keep this until I’m an old man and then it’ll be worth lots of money!” Alas and alack, it disappeared over the years, although I did treasure Spiderman #7 until I sold it after my fund was wiped out.

The great thing about Spiderman was that he was SO REAL! He was just like me. He did well in school but was not one of the cool kids. He was bullied by the jocks. He suffered from self doubts and pined hopelessly for the prettiest girl in his class. It seemed like he lived somewhere in the outer boroughs of NY. He was raised by two lower middle-class parents who were loving and devoted (although his were an aunt and uncle, not a mom and dad).

Over the years it became my favorite comic, more identifiable than any DC character or anyone else in the MARVEL stable (THOR, IRON MAN, THE FANTASTIC FOUR, DAREDEVIL). One day my brother and I discovered that Stan Lee, SPIDERMAN’s creator, had a listed phone number. And HE LIVED IN QUEENS LIKE WE DID! We called the number and when he answered the conversation went something like this:

“Is this Stan Lee?”

“Yes…”

“Is this the Stan Lee who makes SPIDERMAN comics?”

“Yes, it is…

“Oh, my G-d! OH MY G-D! I can’t believe it!”

Then stricken with fear that we would get in trouble for making a phoney phone call we hung up.

I read and collected SPIDERMAN comics until my junior year in high school when girls, Heinlein and theater edged comic obsessions to the sidelines.

I’m writing all this as a prologue to my experience at SPIDERMAN: TURN OFF THE DARK, the new Spiderman musical on Broadway. With a $65 million it’s the most expensive Broadway show ever mounted (SHREK, #2 was ONLY $25 million!). It’s not a universal axiom that vast budgets are fatal to artistic success. For example, AVATAR, the most expensive movie ever made created a magical, believable world and revolutionized the possibilities of cinema. But when the producer of the show proclaimed on 60 MINUTES: “We could have done the $25 million Spiderman but nobody wants to see the $25 million dollar Spiderman. They want to see the $65 million dollar one,” it was distasteful and disturbing. Money alone is not the arbiter of transformative experience.

Still, I was hoping it all would all work for a variety of reasons. I was a Spiderman fan. I was taking Kyle who was a BIG Spiderman fan. He said: ‘I’ve seen 15 Broadway shows but this is the one I’m looking forward to the most!” I spent almost $300 on the tickets. And Julie Taymor and Bono are two creative, socially responsible artists as well as critic’s darlings.

The performance we saw was glitch free. There were none of the notorious stops and starts that plagued the first preview. With the exception of a black clad stagehand twice crawling into a scene to steady a prop or a set piece the show ran smoothly.

Despite this, it was awful. Beyond redemption. An insult to the audience. An insult to live theater. And an insult to Spiderman.

It brought back those words that I stammered to Stan Lee over the phone so many years ago: “Oh, my G-d! OH MY G-D! I can’t believe it!” though now my shock now came from a very different place.

Apart from a three chord Spiderman theme there was not one memorable piece of music in the entire production. In fact, every song sounded the same– overbearing, overwrought and over not soon enough.

The acting (with the exception of a deliciously hammy Green Goblin, the same actor who played Seuss’ Grinch on Broadway a few seasons back) was slickly forgettable or mundanely unmemorable). Peter Parker is a tough role to play. He is a mopey victim who feels sorry for himself when he is not swinging across town on a web. Tobey Maguire was well cast in the movie. His apprehensive whisper and shell-shocked eyes, veered him away from self-pity to a guy waiting for the other shoe to drop. The hardest part for Maguire was making us believe this elfin Emo could perform Herculean deeds and amazing CGI took up the slack on that. Reeve Carney, the ‘actor’ who plays the part here, simply makes no choices at all. He is athletic, powerfully voiced and exceptionally handsome, characteristics antithetical to the role. Mary Jane, the girl he loves is as confident, slick and impenetrable as an American Idol runner up.

The much touted special effects? There was more ‘oohing’ and ‘ahhing’ on the 3D Spiderman ride at Universal. In fact that is where this piece finds its closest kinship: to one of those shows at Disneyworld or Universal that combine actors, special effects and projections. Except at the theme parks they are well done. And they are short. And admission is cheaper. So Spiderman and the Goblin (acrobats, not the actors playing them) ride clunkily over the audience on thick wires? Kyle asked me during the show, “Why is it so CHEESEY?!?” When Peter Parker discovers his power he bounces up and down off retractable walls. Kyle asked, “Why is he jumping up and down on a bungee chord?!?”

Yes, it is still in previews but no intensity of rehearsal or performance will save Spiderman this time because the show also has a fatal flaw. It is not the story of Spiderman.

Spiderman is a boy’s story. A boy full of insecurities about fitting in, romancing the opposite sex, entering the real world and finding a meaningful place in it. The movie made literal what the comic implied: a boy from the boroughs is about to graduate high school and try to find an identity for himself in formidable Manhattan, its menacing skyscrapers, its dog eat dog ethos, its ability to swallow you in its waves of humanity. Girls may go through similar insecurities but I don’t think their fantasies about it have to do with beating up bad guys and flying across skyscrapers. (Stan Lee gave them Mary Jane story about theatrical dreams, failure and redemption but that is given no shrift here). Superhero comics are a boy’s thing…

Instead of the boy’s story Julie Taymor has transformed it into girl’s story. Except for a brief opening tableau you don’t even see Peter Parker or Spiderman for the first 10 minutes. Instead you are presented with a GEEK CHORUS (the Greek Chorus, get it?), three ineffectual, sloppily dressed, dimwitted boys and a quick witted, fashion smart girl who teaches them that the ORIGINAL Spiderman was actually a woman. A woman from Greek Mythology, Arachne, who was transformed by the gods into a spider with eight legs and set into a net for eternity. And then we have to hear HER story. And hear her sing about it. And Miss Patty Perfect reappears throughout the show to set the boys (and the audience) straight about how Spiderman’s male villains are all a dream created by this most powerful woman, powerful enough to destroy Spiderman himself, if she cares to. And then we have to hear Spiderwoman sing about it.

I’m all for empowering little girls and creating role models that are positive and assertive but let’s not mess with Dora The Explorer OR Spiderman.

“Ms Taymor, I KNEW SPIDERMAN AND THIS IS NO SPIDERMAN!”

When the producer extolled the popularity of the $65 million Spiderman he was wrong. The 12 cent Spiderman magically enthralled millions of fans for decades.

Kyle is 12 years old, just about the age when I first met Spidey. He reads the comics. He’s seen all the movies. He plays the video game.

His review?

His head rested against my shoulder as he slept through the second act. On the stage the earth exploded into flames awaiting Spiderman’s rescue, above us the Spiderwoman trawled along suspended from a cable, her pygidium inches from our heads, Mary Jane belted another banal ballad.

None of it disturbed his dreams…