Posted in Television

Westworld

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Breaking the Pattern: Maeve and Escaton

For years–actually decades now— HBO has had a genius for filling that Sunday 9:00 p.m. time slot. “The Sopranos.” “The Wire.” “Sex and the City.” “Six Feet Under.” “Game of Thrones.” All with strong narratives, actors you love to watch, great production values and some of the smartest writing in the business. I’ve loved each of these shows.

I wish I could say the same for HBO’s latest Sunday evening resident, “Westworld.” But I view it the same way I do certain novels, movies and operas—I admire the artistry and craft that made it, but I’m not sure I like it.

There’s such a felicitous analogy that explains what ails “Westworld.” This show is like the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz”—it has no heart. To be sure it does have a pulse, which fortunately belongs to the host and saloon madam, Maeve, brilliantly played by Thandie Newton. Maeve wants out of Westworld in the worst way, but from what we can gather of the outside world via the behavior of the guests and the corporate types that run this fantasy land, she may be sorely disappointed.

Part of my frustration with this show lies in the genre’s very nature, which serves to severely circumscribe the plot possibilities. The hosts will either develop human memories and emotions or they won’t. They will either revolt or they won’t. Ditto whether they’ll escape or kill guests. A guest, in this case William, falls in love with a host (Dolores, who seems to be receding from the strength of her declaration, “I imagined a story where I didn’t have to be the damsel”). And it was so predictable that at least one member of the team running Westworld would turn out to be an android (I’m reminded of the terminology used in the “Alien” movies: “synthetic” or, as the android Bishop puts forward as his preference, “artificial person”). I didn’t find Theresa’s murder to be shocking at all; I suspect that either tonight’s episode will begin with the reveal that she’s also a host or, if she’s really human, that the host we saw being manufactured in Ford’s basement will be her android replacement.

Obviously this is a very cerebral show with its expected explorations of what it means to be human, what it’s like to play God, and related philosophical matters. I have to admit that when Ford told Bernard he had an idea for a new Westworld story line and the camera panned to a church steeple, I groaned. It’s been done so many times before (See “Twilight Zone, Episodes of”). But the show is not really much fun. “Game of Thrones” may occasionally be a gory mess and sadistically play with its audience’s affections for its characters, but damn! It gives us a good time. It’s pure id, as opposed to “Westworld”‘s superego.

I’ll still be watching, though, and not just to see how it turns out. “Westworld” does have its rewards, of course: Thandie Newton’s Maeve, with her fabricated memories of an Indian massacre. The visual razzle-dazzle, special effects and spectacular scenery. Escaton, played by Rodrigo Santoro, that sexy sex machine, and the shifty Lawrence (Clifton Collins, Jr., who looked so familiar but unplaceable until I realized he had played Perry Smith in the film “Capote”).

But the character who may save it all is the Man in Black (Ed Harris), whom I predict is going to be revealed as the good guy in this saga. We’ve already been tipped off that in the outside world, he’s a philanthropist—he was recognized by another guest as the man whose financial contributions saved the life of family member. In his conversation with Ford, he sounds like a knight on a quest as he searches for the entrance to the maze; he insists there’s a deeper meaning to Westworld than first appears, that it’s “something the person who created it wanted to express.” Perhaps William got it right when he said “Westworld doesn’t cater to your baser self—it reveals your true self.” And does it seem that the creation of hosts by a mysteriously vanished inventor of this artificial world  (Arnold, where art thou?) was an attempt to construct beings spiritually better than the human who made them?

We’ll see.

Posted in Observations

Museum of Jewish Heritage

This week I was all set to begin tackling HBO’s “Westworld” which seems to be THE latest water cooler television show. However, far weightier matters are on my mind.

Two days after the election I paid a return visit to New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage. This was something of a spontaneous trip: I’d been wanting to go for weeks to see its exhibit, “Seeking Justice: The Leo Frank Case yellow-starRevisited,” a subject which has interested me for a very long time. A gap in my work schedule appeared on one of those spectacular autumn days we’re lucky to get in the New York area, so I finally had the time and the opportunity.

The exhibit, which was created by the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum of Atlanta, is a comprehensive examination of one of the most unbridled episodes of American anti-Semitism in our history. To say the Leo Frank case is a sobering example of what happens when a corrupt police force, an ambitious prosecutor with his eye on the governor’s office and a virulently prejudiced newspaper publisher combine is not saying enough.

But what really shook me was the sight of a huge Nazi flag in the Museum’s permanent exhibit: blood-red with a swastika front and center and an eagle in the left hand corner. We’re so used to the history of the Hitler years being told in black and white photos and newsreels that seeing an emblem of that time in color, as it was then, is not only shocking–it takes what is behind that emblem out of the history books and makes it contemporary and real.

As do the Museum’s videos of survivors of that era, especially those who were children in 1930’s Germany, whose lives were incrementally but ultimately and completely torn apart. They’re senior citizens on the tapes we view now, but you can still see the childhood bewilderment in their eyes as they relate how it felt to be forbidden to play with their non-Jewish friends, barred from attending their schools and witnessing the growing fear of their parents in the face of a government of hate.

Resonant, isn’t it?

Fortunately there is a bit of light, courtesy of the exhibit focusing on those now honored at Israel’s Yad Vashem as the “Righteous Among the Nations”: people who took tremendous risk to save the targets of Nazi oppression. I was particularly intrigued by the story of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese vice-consul in Kaunas, Lithuana, who bucked the instructions of his government and hand wrote visa after visa, permitting 6000 Jews to escape in 1940. The testimony of several he saved is a reminder that even in the darkest of times, all may not be lost.

One can only hope.

Posted in Movie Reviews

Some Like It Hot

Osgood (Joe E. Brown) and Daphne (Jack Lemmon)
Osgood (Joe E. Brown) and Daphne (Jack Lemmon)

The other day Turner Classic Movies caught me by surprise with a daytime showing of the 1959 classic, “Some Like It Hot.” Usually the cable channel reserves this for Billy Wilder, Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis festivals, so it was a terrific excuse to drop the thousand and one things I needed to get done, and instead watch for the umpteenth time a film I’ve been touting for decades as the funniest movie ever. In fact, “Some Like It Hot” has been acknowledged as such by the American Film Institute.

If for some unfathomable reason you haven’t seen it, the plot is a simple one: Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon), two down-on-their-luck musicians in 1929 Chicago, have the misfortune to witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. They get out of town by disguising themselves as Josephine and Daphne, members of the all-girl band, Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopaters, on its way to Florida for a three-week gig. Among the band’s musicians is singer-ukelele player Sugar Kane Kowalcyk (Marilyn Monroe), who has a history of falling for saxophone players, which Joe is. A millionaire with a yacht, gangsters and hysteria ensue.

What makes this movie? For starters, it hasn’t aged a day. The comedy is as fresh as ever, perhaps more so now given the sexual politics of our time. The screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond never stops, which makes writing about “Some Like It Hot” a bit difficult—there’s an enormous temptation to leave analysis behind and just quote those terrific lines from the film. Nevertheless, few movies are blessed with so many other gifts. Among these are:

Its shrewd and economical take on gender and sexual fluidity. Unlike 1982’s “Tootsie,” which I do like, “Some Like It Hot” maintains a light touch. “Tootsie” uncomfortably lets us down with Dustin Hoffman’s too-earnest speech that being a woman has made him a better man. We’ve already seen him developing some awareness as Dorothy Michaels; telling rather than showing feels like overkill in such a finely played film. In contrast, “Some Like It Hot” takes a more effective approach via the succinct observation. After Daphne is pinched in the hotel elevator, Joe/Josephine notes: “Now you know how the other half lives.” Daphne protests “I’m not even pretty!” to which Josephine retorts “All it matters is that you’re wearing a skirt.” And as Joe, he/she should know. Point made.

The music. “Some Like It Hot” features a great tune selection from the 1920’s: “Running Wild” (“…lost control/Running wild/mighty bold”), “I’m Through With Love” and “I Wanna Be Loved By You” which interestingly is the only song with a 20’s style arrangement, notwithstanding Sugar’s ukelele—lots of staccato trumpets and cymbal chokes. “Stairway to the Stars,” used on the soundtrack during the Junior/Sugar scenes dates from 1934 (close enough), but this is memorably compensated for by “La Cumparsita,” (1916), as Osgood and Daphne tango the night away. Extra bonus: Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopaters actually look like a real orchestra—the violinists are properly bowing and fingering the strings with nary a moment of fake-looking “playing” in sight.

San Diego’s Victorian marvel, the Hotel Del Coronado, standing in for Miami’s Seminole Ritz (love the name). The atmosphere and palm trees couldn’t be better.

Joan Shawlee as Sweet Sue. She was one of the best character actors ever (among her other roles, she was tall Sandra in “From Here to Eternity,” towering over Frank Sinatra, and would later show up as the inimitable Sylvia in Wilder’s “The Apartment”). It’s hard to pick out her best moment (“Each and every one of my girls is a virtuoso—and I intend to keep it that way”), but my favorite is probably her expression of exquisite pain—and disbelief—at Josephine’s Lawrence Welk-style warbling on sax. She can’t yell for her manager enough—“Bienstock!”

For that matter, all the other actors in “Some Like It Hot,” from George Raft (Spats Columbo, with his bone breakers “lawyers”—“All Harvard men”), George E. Stone (Toothpick Charlie), Pat O’Brien (Detective Mulligan) and Nehemiah Persoff (Little Bonaparte) to Dave Barry (Bienstock) and Beverly Wills (Dolores, she of one-legged jockey joke fame). While I’m not a big fan, Marilyn Monroe manages to bring just the right amount of bruised innocence to Sugar, and Tony Curtis is best as Shell-Oil Junior. Pride of place, though, goes to Joe E. Brown as Osgood Fielding III, millionaire on the make, who loves a shapely ankle. He’s so wonderfully besotted with Daphne that he turns farce into a Cinderella tale. And who can forget the one and only Sig Poliakoff, played by Billy Gray? No, this isn’t the young actor from “Father Knows Best.” This Billy Gray (real name: William Victor Giventer) was a sometime actor, comic and owner of The Band Box, a comedy club in Los Angeles. In one of my favorite scenes from “Some Like It Hot,” Sig and Sweet Sue try to come up with replacements for the band’s saxophone and bass players, subtracted by elopement and pregnancy, respectively:

"Bessie let her hair grow, now she's playing with Stokowski." "Black Bottom Bessie?!?" "Spiels auch mit die Philharmonic!"
“Bessie let her hair grow, now she’s playing with Stokowski.” “Black Bottom Bessie?!?” “Spiels auch mit die Philharmonic!”

Jack Lemmon, who brings down the house as Daphne, intoxicated with his engagement to Osgood (“I’m engaged.” “Who’s the lucky girl?” “I am.”) Billy Wilder shrewdly anticipated how movie audiences would react—he supplied Lemmon with a pair of maracas so the responsive laughter would sound over their shaking instead of drowning out the actors’ lines. Lemmon seems to be having a ball in drag, unlike Tony Curtis, who is rather dour, though he is after all stuck with being Daphne’s straight man (later he has a lot more fun imitating Cary Grant). In the Chicago scenes we see Jerry continually put-upon by Joe; there’s a sense that creating and being Daphne has liberated his spirit, and he takes the audience right along with him. Watch his expression during Daphne’s first conversation with Osgood, at the hotel elevators. Osgood’s talking about his last wife, an acrobatic dancer who could smoke a cigarette held between her toes, though his mother ended the marriage. Why? “She doesn’t approve of girls who smoke.” Daphne, narrowing her eyes and pursing her lips, mulls this over for a beat, then shows us her only thought without a word: “Is this guy for real?” It’s fleeting, but one of the funniest moments in the film.

"Well...nobody's perfect."
“Well…nobody’s perfect.”

No final line in any film has been so celebrated, and rightly so. Daphne may not be perfect, but “Some Like It Hot” comes awfully close. What a delight.

Posted in Baseball, Brain Bits, Television

Brain Bits for a Rainy October

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My Boys!

Autumn has been rainy and gloomy so far—that is, until the Mets came through and clinched a Wild Card spot in baseball’s post-season playoffs. Back in late July this seemed impossible. They couldn’t hit, they had already lost Matt Harvey and David Wright for the season, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz had been diagnosed with bone spurs and they were two games under .500. Worst of all, they needed to jump over five other teams to secure Wild Card status.

But then the team came together. Yoenis Cespedes started hitting. Asdrubal Cabrera, this year’s Mets MVP, hands down, came back from the disabled list and bad knees and all, could not be shut down once he had a bat in his hands. An “aged” rookie, T.J. Rivera (he’s all of 28), may have just Wally Pipped Neil Walker at second base, the discarded James Loney, whom the Mets picked up for a song, did an admirable job at first, Wilmer Flores proved he could hit, Jose Reyes proved the team needed a spark plug, and three minor league pitchers, Seth Lugo, Gabriel Ynoa and Robert Gsellman (all correctly spelled, folks) patched up this team’s hobbled rotation. And, after looking like the Dud Trade of the Year, Jay Bruce went on a rampage during the last two weeks of the season, making certain the Metropolitans would not be denied.

Watching the Mets play at the top of their game was reward enough—making the post-season is just icing on the cake. Of course I want them to beat the Giants and go on to play the Cubs, but I have no illusions. It’ll be a difficult progression, but to my way of thinking they’ve already won the season.

Thank you, boys!

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“Westworld”: Dr. Ford Quizzes His Creation

LOOK OUT: SPOILERS BELOW

Robots run amok have always been a staple of the sci-fi genre, but HBO has upped the ante with a new version of “Westworld” that premiered this past Sunday. Based on the 1973 film of the same name that starred Yul Brynner as a cyborg gunslinger with a mind of his own, the HBO version has added some intriguing layers to both story and effects. The artificial humans, or “hosts,” who populate the luxury resort of Westworld are so improved that they’re barely discernible from the visiting guests, a fact brought home when we watch Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the cyborg inventor, knock back a few with Buffalo Bill, one of his earliest creations (Cute reference there to “Silence of the Lambs”). Bill is all herky-jerky, his speech is repetitious and in short, he looks and acts like a large mechanical toy.

Not so the hosts that populate the Wild West area of the resort (if I heard correctly, there are a total of 12 different worlds available to tourists, so there’s a great deal of room for the show to grow). They can react to innumerable variations posed by the guests and can even assist their programmers, headed by Bernard Lowe (the wonderful Jeffrey Wright), in diagnosing any glitches in their code. But things start going awry when they’re reprogrammed to be even more human, against the objections of Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), head of cyborg maintenance and Bernard’s rival on staff. Some have reveries, one accesses past programmed lives on his own, another goes off script altogether. An even greater threat is posed by Peter Abernathy, the “father” of the Wild West cyborg heroine, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), when he unearths a photograph of an urban scene, prompting him to question the reality of his existence. It’s chilling, yet sad, to see his forced retirement into cyborg storage after Dr. Ford determines that it’s too dangerous to keep him working—Peter marches into oblivion with a tear in his eye.

HBO did a fine job with the first episode of “Westworld,” and the cast couldn’t be better. Thandie Newton is the saloon madam (I assume she’ll have far more to do in the coming weeks–she only had five lines last night), James Marsden is Dolores’ cyborg hero-boyfriend, Teddy, and best of all, Ed Harris is the villainous guest, The Man in Black, who appears to be a corporate spy (he “scalps” a cyborg in order to steal the circuitry in his skull). It goes without saying that the special effects are outstanding. My only quibble is that composer Ramin Djawadi’s theme music for this show is basically a ripoff of what he wrote for “Game of Thrones.” The music is so similar it’s distracting. I’m hoping the powers that be enlist the services of a new composer or order a rewrite, pronto.

The next episode can’t air soon enough.

Posted in Television

The Journey, Not the Destination

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Sparring With a Witness: Crown Counsel Janet King (Marta Dusseldorp) and Instructing Solicitor Lina Badir (Andrea Demetriades)

I love mysteries, specifically the hardboiled and procedural varieties with private eyes, cops and especially lawyers. They so consistently produce great character-driven stories. Where would Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” be without Casper Gutman, Joel Cairo and Miss Wonderly Miss LeBlanc Bridget O’Shaughnessy? Not to mention that most inscrutable of P.I.’s, Sam Spade?

While the genre has been a television staple for decades, variations on the theme keep it refreshing. English television has definitely outpaced its American cousin in this regard: “Happy Valley” and “The Fall” feature female leads, and while we’re on the subject, let’s not forget the iconic “Prime Suspect.” Although the co-leads of “Broadchurch” consist of a mixed doubles detective partnership, romance is definitely not in the air (and please, may it never come to that). Two more shows on which I recently binged easily match these for quality—the Australian series, “Janet King,” available on Acorn TV, and its predecessor, “Crownies,” all 22 episodes of which are up on YouTube.

Though they feature the same characters, these two series couldn’t be more dissimilar in tone. “Crownies,” centering on five junior solicitors in the Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP), has more than a passing resemblance to “Grey’s Anatomy” in its depiction of eager (in all senses of the word) young professionals mentored by the presumably older and wiser. It’s very much a dramedy—the genuinely funny moments far outnumber the cringeworthy, but both are outweighed by the seriousness of the cases the DPP handles. On full view are the Attorney General who drugged and raped the women who worked for him, the sisters who beat to death the man who’d seemingly been abusing them, the convenience store murderer whose crime is caught on surveillance video in gruesome detail, the 11 year-old boy who may or may not have murdered his younger brother—the list goes on.

What makes “Crownies” somewhat unusual is that the gray areas of these cases, especially the kiddie and domestic violence killings, are explored in such depth. It’s the DPP’s responsibility to determine whether to prosecute, and the show doesn’t stint on discussions (and frequent arguments) regarding the legal merits of these cases. It’s refreshing to see such thought put into a television series. And I have to admit I’m more than a little envious of my brothers and sisters at the bar who can cross-examine a witness with “I put it to you that…” instead of the far more passive-aggressive “Isn’t it true that…?” we’re forced to use.

Although the acting is uniformly excellent, not all the juniors are equally enjoyable. Three are flat-out terrific no matter their flaws: Erin (Ella Scott Lynch), whose fondness for wine leads her to make some really bad choices in the male department; Lina (Andrea Demetriades), of Palestinian background, who stubbornly sees no future in her relationship with Andy, a police detective; and Richard (Hamish Michael), the classic genius who’s classically inept away from his books. Rounding out the quintet are Tatum (Indiana Evans), an irritating princess type whose father evidently became rich by stepping over if not causing a few dead bodies, and Ben (Todd Lasance), the spoiled rich kid with the barrister father (When Erin, exasperated, asks him at one point, “Don’t you ever get tired of you?,” you’ll find yourself yelling back at your TV, “I sure do!”). All five are instructing solicitors who prepare cases for trial by their superiors and appear on behalf of the state on petty matters. And each is an excellent lawyer, regardless of personality.

In contrast, “Janet King” is very much a procedural, featuring a dark story of mercy killing (maybe), child abuse, kiddie porn and corruption in high places. It discards the ensemble show concept in favor of a leading character, and for good reason. Superbly played by Marta Dusseldorp, Janet King is a senior crown counsel who seems at first glance to be a staple of the genre: the unflappable stoic hero(ine). Naturally, appearances couldn’t be more deceiving. She cares about the junior solicitors in the DPP; she’s an excellent mentor, giving praise and challenging them to do their best (We see a subtle change in the later series—the professor/student dynamic that prevailed in “Crownies” has been replaced by a greater sense of collegiality). There’s an underlying kindness as she advises the bumbling Richard to pace himself when he’s about to work all night to prepare a case (not hers) for trial, and she doesn’t hesitate to read Erin the riot act for letting a very promising future slip away because of her affair with the wine bottle. Although she tells Richard she doesn’t let the horror of her cases get to her (“It sounds weird but it just doesn’t touch me at all”), we later see her break down, sobbing, over the deaths of two young boys drugged and suffocated by their mother.

Fortunately, Janet’s professional life is well-balanced by a rich personal life. While we know in “Crownies” that she’s trying to get pregnant, it’s not revealed until a number of episodes later via an amusing bit of misdirection that her partner, Ash, is a woman; later on we find out that Janet is carrying twins. Pregnant lady humor may seem clichéd, but given what these characters do for a living, it’s a  welcome break (The scene in which Erin attempts to distract her when she goes into labor is classic. “Wait–you’re telling me lawyer jokes?”).  Another of my favorite sequences in “Crownies” involves Ben, Mr. Suave himself, getting so rattled in court by a senior counsel’s alcoholic meltdown, that he can’t even spell his own name correctly for the court stenographer when he’s forced to take over. A later scene, in which he and Richard compare their respective idiocies over a shared sandwich, is a great bit of comic timing. Bravo, gents.

Acorn TV will be adding Season 2 of “Janet King” starting August 29. (It’s currently available on YouTube, but the quality is not the best). No fools they, Acorn will only be adding one new episode a week, so no binging, at least not yet. No sense giving it all away during the one-month free trial period, right?

Posted in Broadway Musicals, Music

The Sound of Broadway

Two recent events have once again proven there are few performances more iconic than those given in Broadway musicals. The death of John McMartin, an actor who graced the original Broadway productions of “Sweet Charity” and the landmark”Follies,” reminded me that the original cast albums of these shows are among my favorite listening experiences. And the sheer joy and exuberance that Zachary Levy brings to the recording of the recent “She Loves Me” revival are the perfect antidote to a down-in-the-dumps day.

Whether on 10-inch shellac 78 rpm disks, vinyl, cassette tape or CD, the original cast album has always served a dual purpose: as advertising for the show and its score and as souvenir for those lucky enough to have seen it on Broadway or on tour. But before we go any further, let’s get one of my pet peeves out of the way. A cast album of a theatrical production is not a “soundtrack,” no matter what retailers, web sites and streaming services may tell you. A soundtrack is what you hear when you see a movie; in CD form it’s the music and/or vocal score of a film. And the differences between a cast album and a soundtrack in terms of performers’ energy and the quality of sound involved can be amazing.

I’ve written before about the cast albums of “Parade,” “LoveMusik,” and “A Little Night Music,” but these are by no means my only favorites. One of my most listened-to recordings is of a show I’ve never seen on stage: “Sweet Charity,” which absolutely crackles with its Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields score; in its original form, it far outstrips the score of the film version starring Shirley MacLaine (surprise, surprise). Had the movie kept Sweet Charity“Baby, Dream Your Dream” and the Broadway version of the title song as sung by John McMartin, not to mention the guitars and mariachi of “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” it might not have been the flop that it was. The sizzle of “Big Spender” (dum dum da-dum dum-dum) and the contrapuntal chorus in “The Rhythm of Life” are just icing on the cake. I can’t leave “Sweet Charity,” though, without singling out Gwen Verdon as one of the best in the original cast album universe. I only saw her on stage once, in the original production of “Chicago,” but the albums of her shows are among the most energetic and fun to hear.

Another Cy Coleman score, “Little Me,” is another great listen. Among its assets is an absolute knock-out performance by Swen Swenson of “I’ve Got Your Number” with the sexiest come-on baritone imaginable. For this show Mr. Coleman’s lyricist was Carolyn Leigh; one of the choruses of “Real Live Girl,” sung by World War I doughboys, never fails to make me smile in its fashion accuracy:

Girls were like fellas was once my belief
What a reversal and what a relief
I’ll take the flowering hat and the towering heel
And the squeal
Of a real live girl.

Follies PapermillThe late Mr. McMartin was Ben Stone in the legendary original production of “Follies.” It’s one of the biggest cheats in the history of Broadway musicals that Capitol Records, which produced the cast album, couldn’t or wouldn’t release it on two disks. Suffice it to say there’s a ton of missing Sondheim; verses, choruses, reprises and entire numbers vanished. Nevertheless, despite its truncated state this album is still a keeper. Every original cast recording is a direct expression of the composer’s and lyricist’s intentions—straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak (This is perfectly apparent in D.A. Pennebaker’s classic documentary of the recording of the “Company” cast album). Given the fall and rise of “Follies” since its 1971 premiere, not to mention the various revisions to the show during these years, it’s always fun to return to the blueprint.

However, I’m equally fascinated by the songs written for “Follies” that never made it to opening night. Although they’ve popped up on various recordings of lost show tunes and in reviews based on Sondheim scores, you can hear all of them sung in character on the recording of the Paper Mill Playhouse production that set the bar for all “Follies” revivals. Donna McKechnie and Tony Roberts may not totally measure up vocally as Sally and Buddy, but Dee Hoty and Lawrence Guittard certainly do as Phyllis and Ben. This two-disk version of “Follies” contains every song ever written for the show, among which are some of Sondheim’s finest work. You’ll wonder why these songs were cut, especially “Bring on the Girls,” which, with its emphatically descending bass line, is a perfect accompaniment to show girls making their entrance (In his book “Finishing the Hat,” Sondheim admits that he should never have replaced it with “Beautiful Girls”). However, the cut song that remains in memory the longest is the original version of the double duet in the “Follies” section of the show, in this instance sung by the younger versions of Ben and Phyllis: “Who Could Be Blue/Little White House.” Its haunting melody and the wistful innocence of its expression are lovely; the contrast with “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow/Love Will See Us Through” is particularly poignant. By the way, this recording includes all three versions of Phyllis’ “Follies” number: “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” “Uptown, Downtown,” and “Ah, But Underneath.” For my money, the first of these remains the best; who else but Sondheim would write the line “That’s the sorrowful précis”?

Other cast albums bring standout moments: Kelli O’Hara’s successive astonishment, wonderment and delight as she sings “I’m in love!” at the climax of “A Wonderful Guy” in the revival of “South Pacific;” Beth Malone’s desperation, singing “Telephone Wire” in “Fun Home,” as her character so longsKismet for a different past; Ms. O’Hara again, this time with Harry Connick, Jr. and Michael McKean, in the revival of “Pajama Game,” doing a bang-up job on “I’m Not at All in Love” (As a devoted fan of 50’s pop, I love this score).  There’s an entire series of recordings from the revivals produced by the Music Theater of Lincoln Center in the 1960’s; I frequently play the disk of “Kismet” to hear soprano Lee Venora as Marsinah sing a tremendous”Baubles, Bangles and Beads” (and Alfred Drake’s “Olive Tree” ain’t too shabby either).

Which brings me to the recent revival of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s “She Loves Me.” Its excellent recording comes with a substantial bonus: the performance of Zachary Levi as Georg. I saw the show in June (thanks again, Jane!), and while the four principals were well matched, it was Jane Krakowski as Ilona who was just a bit more memorable. On disk, however, it’s Mr. Levi who takes the honors; it’s impossible to hear him sing the show’s title song without grinning from ear to ear. Here’s hoping he comes back to Broadway to do another musical soon.

And your favorites are?

Posted in Television

Onward

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Now that was…satisfying.

I meant that as a compliment. “Winds of Winter,” the season finale of “Game of Thrones” brought at least two story arcs to an end, initiated several more, and continued to tease another like a veteran stripper twirling her tassels at an audience. Nicely done, show runners.

Courtesy of Cersei, the Sparrows and their followers, along with Ser Loras, Margaery and their father, were all blown to Kingdom Come. While I’m certain the faithful wanted to get there eventually, it’s a safe bet that wildfire, King’s Landing’s variety of napalm, would never have been their vehicle of choice. I have to confess I’m going to miss that little schemer Margaery who was such a great foil for Cersei. I can’t say the same for the High Sparrow or Tommen, whose suicide seemingly earned little sympathy from the mother he had condemned to the Sparrows. Thus is fulfilled the prophesy that Cersei would see the deaths of all her children.

She certainly wasted no time weeping. Having seized the Iron Throne after years of marginalization by the men in her life, she now rules a kingdom that’s about to come under siege. Is she up to the task? I have to say her own brother looked none too happy about Queen Cersei’s power grab. Falling out of love at long last, perhaps?

Contrast their situation with that of the third Lannister sibling. Tyrion has done quite well for himself. He’s a Hand once more, this time to Queen Danaerys, and on his own merit, not as a plant by his father. Bravo.

Even better was Arya’s avenging the Red Wedding. Before we get there though, I have to wonder what would have happened had Jamie bedded her in her serving wrench disguise. No doubt he would have met the same fate as Walder Frey, but without the benefit of special baked goods (Nice wink at Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” there, show runners). Before this episode aired, the rumor on the interwebs was that Arya would do the deed in Lady Stoneheart disguise. Though the Lady is still MIA, the sight of Walder Frey’s slit throat and Arya’s smile made for lovely viewing.

In other Stark news, Jon Snow’s identity as Lyanna’s son was finally confirmed, though you had to know from Season 1 that Ned Stark was not his father (Ned would get all moody and distant when the subject of Jon’s mother came up, so it didn’t take much brainpower to put two and two together. Starks are not Lannisters, after all). However it seems we’re still being teased about his paternity. OK, Lyanna was abducted, but is this conclusive? What did she whisper in Ned’s ear before she died? Lip readers to the fore, please!

Bastard or no, Jon Snow is now King of the North, courtesy of Itty Bitty Lady Mormont’s calling out the slackers and Sister Sansa’s rebuff of Lord Baelish. Speaking of which, Sansa’s certainly got his number by now: “Anyone who trusts Littlefinger is a fool.” On the other hand, it may prove wiser in the long run for her to have observed the adage: “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” I would think Littlefinger, always drawn to power, may shortly be hightailing it back to King’s Queen’s Landing to join forces with Cersei. And with Melisandre having been turned out of Winterfell and now freelancing, who knows what will happen?

[By the way, have you noticed how tall Sophie Turner has gotten? It’s somewhat amusing that she can now literally look down on both Aiden Gillen and Kit Harrington. Foreshadowing?]

So we end Season 6 with the Tyrells (Lady Olenna never misses a step), Martells, Iron Born and Targaeryan/Dothraki forces sailing to Westeros to install Dany as Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Varys succeeded in his mission, the dragons are flying and Dany is at the helm. But winter has arrived—will she still prevail? Other wildcards include Arya, now making her way to Winterfell, the Hound and the Brotherhood Without Banners, Brienne and Gendry (Remember him? Robert Baratheon’s bastard).

Plenty to go around in the future, though it seems only two shortened seasons remain. I’ll miss the show after it’s gone, but I have to say the projected end date seems right. We’ve been through the initial “Shock of the Week” phase during the show’s first few seasons; this season has been one of satisfaction, as many plot expectations have been fulfilled. Every show has a “use by” date; it would be horrible to see GoT become a “What? That again?” show in predictability.

Knowing when to leave is prime TV wisdom. Let’s hope “Game of Thrones” wraps up in style.