Monday, March 26, 2012

More From My Pal Steve...

This is turning into "The Stephen Sondheim Blog"...but when he keeps writing me, what else can I do?

I wrote to Sondheim on January 2nd, c/o his publishers, about the subject of this post. At the urging of my wife Laura, I also included an anagram I had once devised from the title of one of his shows.

Six weeks later, not having heard back from him, I wrote him again. This time I contacted a friend who I knew had Sondheim's Manhattan address. I had it myself at one time, but lost it. (It's one of the worst-kept secrets of the NYC musical theatre scene.) My second letter mentioned the earlier one, and I wondered to him if he was following the example of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, as outlined here. I asked him the same question about Henson, but this time I cut the anagram in favor of mentioning a local production of Pacific Overtures I had seen the week before. That letter went out on February 16th. His reply was dated February 20th, and the crux of it is here.

And today, I received a response to my first letter! It's dated March 20. So he did get it from the publishers, it just took a couple of months. The response about Henson is briefer this time, but included the new information that he and Lapine had lunch with Henson, but only once.

There's nothing about the mixed-up dates, so I wonder if he vaguely remembered answering my second letter, exactly one month earlier. But he also added this, which delights me to no end:

And your anagram is terrific — congratulations.

That anagram, in case you're curious, is as follows:


Friday, March 23, 2012

A Middling-summer Night's Dream

We watched the BBC Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream". It was directed by Elijah Moshinsky, and I'm pleased to report this was much better than his "All's Well That Ends Well". But that's not to say it was particularly memorable. Somehow the series's budgetary constraints seemed more apparent than usual, I suppose because the magical elements of the play could benefit from every pound you can throw their way. Lots of darkness, and splashing about in an in-studio pond.

Standouts in the cast were Robert Lindsay as Lysander and Helen Mirren as Titania. Cherith Mellor's Helena also amused.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Tell Me on a Sunday in the Park with George

Today is Stephen Sondheim's birthday. Today is also Andrew Lloyd Webber's birthday.

See? Lloyd Webber even plagiarized his own birthday from another composer.

(I kid! I kid! Lloyd Webber is great too! Here's something that, if you've never seen it before, you never thought you would see.)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Pufnstuf Piece

When I was four, my family took a trip to HemisFair ' 68 in San Antonio. My only memories are of a show we saw. About all I remember is it being very dark in the theatre, and a witch character flying out over the audience. Scary.

That show was "Kaleidoscope", created by Sid and Marty Krofft, and it was the genesis for their show "H.R. Pufnstuf". The dragon character named "Luther" turned into Pufnstuf himself, and I suppose the witch I remember was the forerunner to Witchiepoo. I'm not sure if I made the "Kaleidoscope" connection at the time, but I loved "H.R. Pufnstuf" immediately and rabidly when it debuted in late '69. Had the 45 record, had a toy Freddy the Flute, had a Pufnstuf puppet, had (still have) the lunchbox, had the comic books. Idolized Jack Wild.

But I have to say I was disappointed when I got the complete series (yes, all 17 episodes!) on DVD and watched it. There are ways in which it's wonderful, but also ways in which it's a big mess. I kinda felt like there was just too much Lennie Weinrib. Nothing against the man, but between all the writing and all the voices he seemed stretched a bit thin.

A couple of nights ago I watched the movie Pufnstuf. I vividly remember seeing it in the movie theater in 1970, and being hugely disappointed that Pufnstuf's voice was different! How could they do that? Rewatching it now, I'm struck by how much Allan Melvin actually does sound like Lennie Weinrib, but my 6 year old ears were much less forgiving.

However, it must be said that the Charles Fox/Norman Gimbel score is terrific! These are the guys who would go on to write "Killing Me Softly with His Song", and innumerable TV theme songs. The score is by far the movie's strongest element, and is often quite lovely and even poignant.

I've always thought you could make a very interesting documentary contrasting the careers of Sid and Marty Krofft with that of Jim Henson. Both were doing essentially the same "thing", and hit the big time within two months of each other (the Kroffts with "Pufnstuf" and Henson with "Sesame Street"). What sent Henson's career on an upward trajectory, while the Kroffts were relegated to Saturday morning? The cold and cruel answer is, of course, "quality". The Krofft shows definitely have a kitschy, nostalgic appeal, but it's tough to really get involved with a character like Pufnstuf when he's played by one guy in a suit, vaguely approximating lip sync, while another guy is providing the voice somewhere. Henson was operating on an entirely different plane. But there's still a soft spot in my heart for Puf.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Greek Love (with Trojans)

Oof, we watched Troilus and Cressida. Not a very satisfying play. I think Jonathan Miller's production did about as well with the piece as could be hoped for; the only major miscalculation seemed to me to be the role of Ulysses. I don't think it's entirely actor Benjamin Whitrow's fault that Laura and I found his character to be deadly dull, both of us wanting to nod off during his many long speeches. Towards the end of the play, Miller's direction had other characters actually acknowledging the fact that Ulysses tends to drone on and on. Yet the portrayal of Ulysses never had that sense of fun that you sometimes see with Polonius in Hamlet. With Miller's guidance, Whitrow either needed to try to actually engage us in Ulysses's speeches, or play him for more of a pure windbag.

By far the most engaging presence onscreen was "The Amazing Orlando" (Jack Birkett) as Thersites. With Birkett, Charles Gray's Pandarus, Simon Cutter's Patroclus, and David Kinsey as Paris's servant, this production often seemed to be one big "queen" contest. Birkett easily won. But more importantly, he also made a strong, passionate, and believable character out of a difficult role. Especially in the scenes by the fire, with his bald head, huge eyes, and wheedling voice, it was extraordinary how Birkett evoked Peter Jackson's Gollum, some 20 years before the Lord of the Rings movies.

I also want to give a shout out to Anthony Pedley, who was quite amusing as Ajax. He's clearly a favorite of Miller's, and it's been a treat to watch his distinctive, Bob Peckish presence in four of the BBC Shakespeares thus far. That's one of the treats of watching the series; watching terrific actors like Charles Gray go from a regal, stately Julius Caesar to a vamping, lecherous, syphilitic Pandarus. The BBC Shakespeare series is interesting not only in the opportunity it gives to watch all of the Bard's output, but also as a "thing" itself.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Why Can't the Americans?

Why is it that seemingly every British actor can do an American accent that sounds completely authentic to my American ears, yet almost no American actors can do British accents that sound authentic to me?

It can only be due to the superiority of American dialect coaches...right?

And on a quasi-related note: Remember how Sid Caesar used to ad-lib in other languages, and it sounded like he was really speaking the language, even though it was just gibberish? I've always wondered what it would sound like if someone did that to "English".

Which is worse?

That Burton's old "Animal Alphabet" placemat doesn't have any animal for X? (I would suggest the X-ray fish.) Or that the animal for U is "Unicorn"?