Musings from the Bunker 1/22/21
It’s been quite a week in quite a month. I thought I would try to talk a little bit less about our troubles and the political world and, instead, intersperse some theatre, music and books amidst the more serious stuff over the next week.
THE MAGIC OF MUSICAL THEATRE
How did I grow to love theatre generally and musical theatre specifically? I remember it like it was yesterday. We all got dressed to go to the theatre at the Music Center. It was 1964 or 1965 and we were going to the Los Angeles production of Fiddler on the Roof. The drive was familiar, taking us past Knotts Berry Farm, the smell of cooking oil coming from the Frito-Lay facility, the mysterious faux-Egyptian Uniroyal factory, and the curve the freeway took to go around Brew 102 (clearly there’s an interesting land use story there). Suddenly, there it was, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the temple to symphony and theatre in Los Angeles (at that time home to the Philharmonic and the Civic Light Opera).
It was just short way from the iconic Los Angeles City Hall, recognizable to any kid of that era from the badges on the police shows. We parked in the cavernous underground parking garage and found our way up to the Pavilion, where we awaited curtain call in the lobby under the enormous chandeliers. We came to the theatre and the symphony a log and it never ceased to impress. We were in the “big city.” To top off the evening, we would retire to one of my parents’ favorite places for dinner, either Chinatown, Fairfax or one of the “fancier” places around mid-Wilshire.
There were other shows of those old days that had an impact on me (like Hello Dolly, Man of La Mancha, and West Side Story) but Fiddler resonated with my heritage. It was, in many ways, as much of a lesson in connection to my Jewish roots as was my Bar Mitzvah (and certainly more than Hebrew School!). The story of this small town told through the observations, ruminations and machinations of poor Tevye the milkman, touched on the complexities of faith, politics, princple and family. It was melodic, humorous, sentimental, and in its final act simultaneously tragic and hopeful.
My father prided himself of being the “poor Jewish kid from the Bronx.” He would always tell my sister and me that we would have had no exposure to the arts if not for my mother. That said, when we left the theatre, my mother turned to my father and said, “Well, Bill, what did you think?” My father’s quick response was “I liked it but it will flop—only Jews will want to see it.”
So much for my father’s theatre acumen. The show was the first musical to exceed 3,000 shows on Broadway, has been the subject of multiple Broadway and national revivals and has been seen around the world in countless languages. And you know what, not all the tickets were sold to Jews…!
Some years later, I attended the first run of the ground-breaking Luis Valdez play, Zoot Suit, at the Mark Taper Forum (which had since been built at the Music Center). It too was an “ethnic play” but one not about my ethnicity. What I learned opened my eyes to another cultural experience in this city. But Zoot Suit was no more for Latinos only than Fiddler was only for Jews.
These plays helped me realize that theatre offered people a way to escape into the and inhabit the world being played out before them in a way that film and television simply could not. For two hours, we can both learn and feel, while being enlightened and entertained. There is no camera as intermediary and editor.
At its best, live theatre feels unforced, almost raw and unrehearsed. There is a tension emanating from the stage that can’t really be described, with actors sharing their characters’ hopes, ambitions, disappointments, and struggles in real time, as if we are peering in on their lives.
Theatre can expose audiences to people different from themselves in different circumstances, but struggling with issues that could resonate. Theatre is a place where we can learn about each other, in a non-threatening way, and experience, if only briefly, the story of other communities, ethnicities and other socio-economic groups. Theatre can bring us together.
Sometimes the dialog and tension of the stage can be transposed to the screen. This is done in two recent examples of genius of August Wilson. For those who haven’t heard of him, he arguably is the greatest Black playwright (at least thus far). He has created an oeuvre of ten plays about the Black experience in America, each told in a different decade of the 20th century. While each has a plot, they are more about the people, the era, the community and the circumstance of (and responses to) an event. The stories offer a picture of richly drawn characters just scratching out a life, lamenting their traumas, living their dreams and contemplating their futures, all in the context of the Black experience in America. Wilson, two time Pulitzer Prize winner, describes his goal as setting out the “poetry of Black America.”
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (on Netflix) is, like much of Wilson’s work, a work of literature. It is all about words of people in ordinary circumstances speaking within the context of their circumstances, about bigger issues. In this play, starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman (in his final performance), Ma is coming to a recording studio to make a record in the 1920s. Much of the action is the interplay of her backup band, comprised of a few older gentlemen and Boseman, who is a brash young cornet player itching to make his mark. It is a time of change in music and society. The manager and the producer are White men, who are required to kowtow to Ma (and she regularly reminds them of this fact). While there is a “story” the plot is secondary to the characters.
Fences (on Prime Video), starring Denzel Washington, is the story of the family of a garbage collector, played by Denzel Washington, his wife, best friend and his children from different relationships. Washington’s character was a ball player with promise that was unfulfilled, now living as a tough patriarch who could not relate to the changing times of the 1950s. As his friend says, “Times have changed. You just come along too early.” His character says “Life don’t owe you nothin’. You owe it to yourself.”
Denzel Washington promises that he will continue bringing more August Wilson to film, saying “The greatest part of what’s left of my career is making sure that August is taken care of.” Amen to that.
A FEW SHORT READS
People have heard me joke about not wanting to attend a play longer than two hours, watch any movie longer than 2 ½ hours (I can accept slightly more length because I can use the “pause” button), or read a book longer than 500 pages. I think a great author can impart much in a relatively few pages. That’s the case with a few books I highly recommend:
Memorial Drive, by Natasha Trethewey. This personal memoir by this Pulitzer Prize winning poet, describes the youth and education of a mixed-race woman growing up in 1970s and 80s. Using the murder of her mother at the hands of her stepfather in 1985 as the central story, Ms. Trehewey explores the world of her youth and the world of her mother’s growing up in the South, particularly the challenges that faced her mixed-race parents. As trite as it sounds, I couldn’t put it down.
We Germans, by Alexander Starritt. This is a meditation on complicity and guilt, the story of a young German soldier on the eastern front and the period of the German collapse and its aftermath. Much of the book is in the form of a letter from the aging protagonist to his young grandson, a form of mea culpa and act of contrition. A tour de force of the epistolary novel. “Can you do evil without meaning to?” Again, short and riveting.
A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth, by Daniel Mason. I bought this because of its name (are the “Musings” a registry of some portion of my passage upon the earth?), the recommendation of the New Yorker and the fact the author is a clinical professor of Psychiatry at Stanford. This is a lovely selection of short stories that I would term more “short scenes.” The stories are fragments of the lives of complex people with unusual habits, traits, or perspectives. There’s a lot of scientific inquiry (not science fiction ). Each is unique in its own way and a great digestif before bedtime.
Have a great week!